By HOWARD BERGER
LOS ANGELES (May 7) – There is nearly two decades of separation between Wayne Gretzky and Dustin Brown; Kelly Hrudey and Jonathan Quick; Barry Melrose and Darryl Sutter. But, suddenly, the Los Angeles Kings are back where they’ve been only once previously – in the spring of 1993 – when Gretzky and Co. played the Toronto Maple Leafs in a legendary, seven-game Stanley Cup semifinal.
The 2012 Kings will need to slow down considerably to go seven games with either Phoenix or Nashville in the Western Conference championship. L.A. is the first No. 8 seed to banish the No. 1 and 2 seeds in a Conference and they’ve done it in nine games, one over the minimum. A four-game sweep of the St. Louis Blues – the first in franchise history dating to 1967 and achieved during a 3-1 victory yesterday at Staples Center – lifted the Kings to a playoff-best 8-and-1 record and sent the downtown core of this city into late-afternoon delirium. A scene normally reserved for the powerhouse Lakers of the NBA enveloped the arena; Los Angeles Convention Center and Toyota L.A. Live complex – hockey fans, new and old, whooping it up and high-fiving in all manner of Kings paraphernalia. Traffic on the Harbor Freeway, winding north and south from downtown, was at a virtual stand-still as elated Kings zealots leaned out of car windows and screamed themselves hoarse.
It took the Kings a mere 43 years to avenge a sweep by the Blues in the 1969 West Division final… prominent names from that series including Scotty Bowman, Jacques Plante and Al Arbour of the Blues; Gerry Desjardins, Eddie Joyal and Bill Flett of Los Angeles. Kings and Blues are the only survivors of the 1967 NHL expansion not to have won the Stanley Cup – Pittsburgh Penguins [three times]; Philadelphia Flyers [twice] and Minnesota North Stars [once, in 1999 after re-locating in Dallas] have raised the silver mug while the Oakland Seals long ago swam into oblivion.
JONATHAN QUICK AND ANZE KOPITAR SHAKE HANDS WITH ST. LOUIS PLAYERS MOMENTS AFTER L.A. COMPLETED A FOUR-GAME SWEEP OF THE BLUES IN WEST SEMIFINAL.
Should the Kings of 2012 continue performing near-flawlessly, they’ll stand a good chance of becoming the first American-based team west of Denver to win the NHL championship. It no longer matters how they qualified for the playoffs or where they were situated at the end of the regular season. Goalie Jonathan Quick has a couple of fingers on the Conn Smythe Trophy – having allowed all of 14 goals in the nine games for a sparkling 1.55 GAA and .949 save-percentage. The Western Conference final will open in either Glendale, Ariz. or Nashville next weekend and Los Angeles will carry a spotless road record [5-and-0] into the first two games. Phoenix Coyotes can clinch the other Western berth by defeating Nashville on home-ice in Game 5 later tonight; the clubs splitting their encounters in Tennessee after Phoenix swept the opening two matches at Jobing.com Arena.
THE LAST TIME – 19 YEARS AGO…
The 1993 Campbell Conference final (as it was known) between the Kings and Maple Leafs took most hockey fans by surprise. Though Gretzky often sparked excellence in the playoffs, he had missed a large portion of the 1992-93 regular season with a pelvic/back injury and was skating at less than 100 percent when the Kings knocked off Calgary and Vancouver in the playoffs – each in six games. Any person wagering on a Toronto appearance in the Cup semifinal prior to that season would have become wealthy. Leafs had missed the playoffs the previous two springs and were said to be in a five-year build toward respectability. That was reduced to a five-month build when general manager Cliff Fletcher landed Doug Gilmour in a monster, 10-player trade with Calgary – still the largest in NHL history. Gilmour and Gretzky – the latter re-gaining health as the playoffs progressed – dragged their teammates into the Conference final and were the main characters in an unforgettable incident.
Toronto fans are still haunted by the sight of Gretzky lifting a rebound over Felix Potvin at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif. to win Game 6 of the series in overtime. L.A. faced elimination that night and the Leafs rebounded from a 4-2 deficit in the third period on consecutive goals by Wendel Clark – the latter with Potvin on the bench for an extra attacker in the final minute. A victory would have set up a Toronto-Montreal clash for the Stanley Cup. Late in the third period, Gretzky’s stick-blade – on the follow-through of a shot – accidentally clipped Gilmour on the chin, bloodying the Leafs player.
Neither referee Kerry Fraser nor his two linesman claimed to have witnessed the infraction, which should have eliminated No. 99 for the remainder of the match. Instead – and as per his impeccable timing – the Great One popped the decisive goal early in the first overtime to force a seventh game in Toronto two nights later. He then scored a hat-trick in what he still calls his best-ever playoff performance and the Kings advanced to face the Canadiens – winning the opener at Montreal but then dropping the next four games in succession.
FRONT OF TORONTO STAR SPORTS ON MAY 28, 1993 – THE MORNING AFTER WAYNE GRETZKY RUINED A TERRIFIC LEAFS COMEBACK AT THE L.A. FORUM BY WINNING GAME 6 OF CONFERENCE FINAL EARLY IN OVERTIME, NECESSITATING A DECIDING MATCH AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS IN TORONTO TWO NIGHTS LATER.
Game 4 here yesterday of the Kings-Blues series began at noon local time and was shown across the nation on NBC, with Dave Strader calling the play; Brian Engblom doing color and Brian Hayward reporting from between the benches. TSN carried the match north of the border with Chris Cuthbert in the broadcast booth; Ray Ferraro at ice level and Ryan Rishaug hosting. Given the occasion – and the result – there was quite a scene in and around the arena… before, during and after the game.
Please enjoy my photo-review of yesterday’s hockey excitement here in SoCal:
OUTSIDE STAPLES CENTER – PRE-GAME…
Fans of all ages filed into the Kings’ home arena as the Goodyear Blimp “Spirit of America” – having flown up from its base north of Long Beach – circled above downtown; commissioned on this day by NBC for aerial shots.
INSIDE STAPLES CENTER – PRE-GAME…
KINGS’ SPARKPLUGS DREW DOUGHTY (ABOVE LEFT); MIKE RICHARDS (10) AND JARRET STOLL (28 – RIGHT) DURING WARM-UP AT STAPLES CENTER YESTERDAY.
KINGS PUT IMMEDIATE PRESSURE ON ST. LOUIS AND IT RESULTED IN ANOTHER EARLY GOAL – BY JORDAN NOLAN – AT 4:36 OF THE OPENING PERIOD.
TEAM CAPTAINS DAVID BACKES AND DUSTIN BROWN CONVERSE AFTER PLAY.
A SHOT FROM THE RIGHT-WING BOARDS BY KEVIN SHATTENKIRK CAUGHT JONATHAN QUICK COMPLETELY BY SURPRISE (TOP-LEFT), TYING THE MATCH AT 11:34 OF THE FIRST PERIOD. SHATTENKIRK THEN TOLD LINESMAN SCOTT DRISCOLL ALL ABOUT IT (BELOW).
AFTER KEEPING DAVID PERRON AT A SAFE DISTANCE, QUICK TOOK A BREATHER.
CHRIS STEWART AND JORDAN NOLAN SQUARED OFF AT 13:53 OF FIRST PERIOD.
THIS FIGHT WAS ABOUT THE ONLY THING ST. LOUIS WON IN THE SERIES.
DUSTIN BROWN SCORED HIS FIFTH GOAL OF THE PLAYOFFS WITH 1:43 LEFT IN THE OPENING FRAME, RESTORING THE KINGS’ ADVANTAGE. LITTLE DID BRIAN ELLIOTT AND ALEX PIETRANGELO KNOW THAT L.A. HAD CRAFTED ITS VICTORY MARGIN.
FROM PINK TO WHITE, THE SECOND PERIOD BEGINS.
THEY WERE JAMMED INTO EVERY NOOK AND CRANNY OF THE STAPLES CENTER FOR THE BIGGEST HOCKEY GAME IN THIS CITY IN NEARLY 20 YEARS.
THE TEAMS RELAX DURING A TELEVISION BREAK.
JONATHAN QUICK WAS BUSY IN THE FINAL TWO PERIODS, AS THE BLUES PORED ALL THEY COULD AT HIM WHILE TRYING TO WIN THE GAME AND EXTEND THE SERIES.
QUICK STARED DOWN AN INVADER IN THE SECOND PERIOD (ABOVE) – ACTUALLY, A TV TECH GUY LOOKING AT THE NET-CAM BEHIND THE LOS ANGELES GOALIE.
T.J. OSHIE, DAVID BACKES AND KEVIN SHATTENKIRK TALK IT OVER (ABOVE) AND CHRIS STEWART THEN WATCHES FLYING PUCK (BELOW) WITH SLAVA VOYNOV OF THE KINGS.
BRIAN ELLIOTT IMPRESSIVELY KEPT ST. LOUIS IN THE GAME.
SECOND PERIOD ENDS (ABOVE-LEFT) AND I’M NOT CERTAIN WHO THESE GUYS ARE (RIGHT), THOUGH THEY APPEAR TO BE DECKED IN PHOENIX COYOTES COLORS.
FANS WELCOME KINGS BACK TO THE ICE (ABOVE) FOR WHAT WOULD BE THE FINAL PERIOD IN WESTERN CONFERENCE SERIES.
QUICK CONTINUED TO HOLD THE BUZZING BLUES AT BAY.
MIKE RICHARDS WAS MORE ANXIOUS THAN DAVID BACKES IN THIS THIRD-PERIOD FACE-OFF.
AS TIME WOUND DOWN, THE BLUES COULD SEE THEIR SEASON SLIPPING AWAY.
T.J. OSHIE ISN’T FALLING OFF THE BENCH, AS IT APPEARS (ABOVE) – HE IS MERELY HOPPING OVER THE BOARDS ON A LATE LINE CHANGE. HIS TEAMMATES, DAVID PERRON AND SCOTT NICHOL, DIG FOR A LOOSE PUCK (BELOW).
THE DUSTINS – BROWN (ABOVE) AND PENNER (BELOW) STAYED CLOSE TO BRIAN ELLIOTT AS REGULATION TIME MARCHED ON.
AFTER SOME FACE-OFF CONFUSION (TOP-LEFT), ST. LOUIS CAME WITHIN AN INCH OF TYING THE SCORE WHEN A SHOT RANG OFF THE CROSS-BAR (TOP-RIGHT) BEHIND QUICK. FANS TOOK A DEEP BREATH – EVEN THOSE COUNTING DOWN THE KINGS PLAYOFF VICTORIES.
ELLIOTT RACED TO THE BENCH (ABOVE) FOR AN EXTRA ATTACKER IN THE FINAL MINUTE BUT DUSTIN BROWN CLINCHED THE WIN – AND THE SERIES SWEEP – WITH AN EMPTY-NET GOAL AT 19:34, CELEBRATING (BELOW) WITH TEAMMATES.
THE ROAR WAS DEAFENING IN STAPLES CENTER AS MORE THAN 18,000 KINGS FANS STOOD; CHEERED AND WAVED THEIR TOWELS (ABOVE) IN FINAL SECONDS OF THE MATCH – STREAMERS UNLEASHED AT THE BUZZER (BELOW).
AFTER A TERRIFIC SEASON UNDER KEN HITCHCOCK, THE BLUES WERE NO DOUBT STUNNED (ABOVE) AFTER THE GAME, BUT THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT FOR THIS YOUNG, ENERGETIC CLUB.
KINGS AND BLUES ENGAGE IN TRADITIONAL POST-SERIES GREETING.
HAPPY FANS LEFT THE STAPLES CENTER (ABOVE AND BELOW), KNOWING THEY’LL BE BACK IN ABOUT A WEEK-AND-A-HALF FOR GAMES 3 AND 4 OF THE WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL.
AND THE PARTY WAS ON OUTSIDE THE ARENA.
SUNSET AND MOON-RISE
IN SAN FERNANDO VALLEY
Sunday, May 6, 2012…
GAME 5 – MONDAY NIGHT, 10 P.M. EDT – TSN
LOOKING FORWARD TO COVERING TONIGHT’S FIFTH GAME OF THE COYOTES-PREDATORS SERIES IN GLENDALE, ARIZ. – NASHVILLE FACING ELIMINATION.
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