No Stopping Road Warriors From L.A.

By HOWARD BERGER

GLENDALE, Ariz. (May 14) – While the Los Angeles Kings haven’t won anything yet, they are methodically piecing together the most impressive Stanley Cup romp in nearly a quarter-century. Not since the dynasty of Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers in the latter half of the 1980s has a playoff team threatened to knife through the competition with such brevity.

L.A. opened the Western Conference final here last night with a 4-2 victory over the Phoenix Coyotes, improving its phenomenal record in the 2012 post-season to 9-and-1 (6-and-0 on the road, a club record). We have to go back to 1988, when Edmonton lost two games in four playoff rounds, to recall a team barnstorming its way through the Stanley Cup tournament. Oilers knocked off Winnipeg 4-1; Calgary 4-0 and Detroit 4-1 before trampling the Bruins 4-0 in the Cup final – best-remembered for a power-failure at Boston Garden in Game 4 (16:37 of the second period) that forced postponement of the match with the score tied 3-3. Edmonton completed the sweep on home ice two nights later.

The Oilers of that era, of course, were arguably the most talented young team in the history of the NHL, with Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey and Grant Fuhr – all future Hall of Famers – leading the way. Rather than sneaking into the playoffs on the final weekend of the regular season, as Los Angeles did this spring, the Oilers of 1987-88 finished a solid third in the 21-team NHL with 99 points – behind only Calgary and Montreal. When the playoffs began, it was no contest… and hardly a surprise, as Edmonton breezed to its fourth championship in five years before shocking the sports world by trading Gretzky to the Kings less than three months later.

LOS ANGELES KINGS MADE THEMSELVES AT HOME HERE IN GLENDALE LAST NIGHT – WINNING THE OPENER OF THE WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL, 4-2, WHILE MAINTAINING THEIR PERFECT ROAD MARK IN THE 2012 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS.

Conversely, what Los Angeles is doing this spring was entirely unforeseen when the playoffs began the second week of April. Most experts had the Kings bowing rather quickly to Vancouver in the opening round – Canucks finishing atop the overall standings with 111 points, 16 more than L.A. Instead, the defending Conference champion got blind-sided on home ice in the first two matches – losing both – en route to a meek, five-game surrender. St. Louis, the NHL’s third-place club in the regular season, was also expected to oust the Kings. But, the road warriors from southern California marched into Scottrade Center and repeated their opening-round feat by grabbing the first two encounters.

The Blues never recovered and were swept from the playoffs amid cascading euphoria at Staples Center – L.A. becoming the first eighth-place team to banish the No. 1 and 2 seeds in a Conference.

Now, the routine appears to be starting all over again.

Phoenix had no business taking last night’s series debut into the third period tied 2-2. The Kings swarmed the Coyotes in the opening frame – compiling a 17-4 edge in shots on goal – and increased that margin to 34-18 after two. In a familiar scenario, however, Phoenix goalie Mike Smith kept his club alive – as he did through much of the Conference semifinal against Nashville. That’s why the Kings haven’t won anything yet; their opponent in this round is proving to be the ultimate survivor.

But, L.A. doesn’t offer much hope. Though idle for seven days after dispatching the Blues, the Kings came out in the first period as if they had played the previous night. The notion of a languorous start dissipated immediately, as Los Angeles maintained puck-possession in the attacking zone and struck for its customary quick goal – Anze Kopitar beating Smith just 3:53 into the match. Ultimately, the margin of defeat flattered the home side. Game 2 is Tuesday (9 p.m. Eastern) here in Glendale.

My photo-review, now, of the Mother’s Day opener between the Kings and Coyotes:

THE COURTYARD OF THE WESTGATE ENTERTAINMENT COMPLEX ADJACENT TO JOBING.COM ARENA IS DOMINATED BY A GIANT, INFLATED HOCKEY FIGURE CLAD IN COYOTES’ BRICK-RED.

FANS OF BOTH TEAMS (ABOVE AND BELOW) MADE THEIR WAY INTO THE ARENA FROM SCORCHING CONDITIONS THAT TOPPED 105 DEGREES (F) LATE IN THE AFTERNOON.

      

NORTH ENTRANCE TO JOBING.COM ARENA FROM WESTGATE PLAZA (ABOVE) AND SOUTHWEST QUADRANT OF THE BUILDING (BELOW). 

IT WAS INFINITELY MORE COMFORTABLE INSIDE THE ARENA, AS THE KINGS AND COYOTES TOOK PART IN THE PRE-GAME WARM-UP (ABOVE).

THOSE PLAYFUL LOONIES CLAD IN GREEN AT HOME GAMES OF THE VANCOUVER CANUCKS WERE EMULATED HERE LAST NIGHT BY A COUPLE OF JOKERS ENVELOPED IN WHITE (ABOVE).

CROWD FILES IN TO JOBING.COM ARENA DURING WARM-UP (ABOVE) AND RINK-SIDE ANALYST BRIAN ENGBLOM OF THE NBC SPORTS NETWORK CONDUCTS AN INTERVIEW (BELOW) WITH KINGS’ DEFENSEMAN DREW DOUGHTY. 

RAUCOUS COYOTES ROOTERS WELCOME THEIR TEAM TO THE ICE (ABOVE AND BELOW) WHILE REPORTERS ENGBLOM OF NBC AND RAY FERRARO OF TSN DO LIVE PRE-GAME INTERVIEWS.

TEAMS AND OFFICIALS STAND FOR SINGING OF THE NATIONAL ANTHEM (ABOVE) – REFEREES KEVIN POLLOCK (33) AND BRAD WATSON (27) IN CHARGE OF THE SERIES OPENER (BELOW).

WATSON BEGINS THE WESTERN CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP WITH FACE-OFF AT CENTER ICE (ABOVE) BETWEEN MARTIN HANZAL OF PHOENIX AND MIKE RICHARDS OF LOS ANGELES.

THE VISITORS JUMPED ON THE ATTACK FROM THE OUTSET (ABOVE) AND REPEATED THEIR HABIT OF SCORING AN EARLY GOAL (BELOW) WHEN ANZE KOPITAR BEAT MIKE SMITH FOR HIS FOURTH OF THE 2012 PLAYOFFS.

TEMPERS BEGAN TO FLARE AND A PILE-UP IN THE PHOENIX END (BELOW) RESULTED IN A PENALTY TO SMITH FOR ROUGHING JUST 21 SECONDS AFTER KOPITAR’S TALLY.

THOUGH BEING OUT-SHOT, 12-3, THE COYOTES DREW EVEN ON A CALAMITOUS GOAL, AS DEREK MORRIS FAKED A SHOOT-IN FROM CENTER ICE AND BEAT JONATHAN QUICK WITH A 100-FOOT SLAP-SHOT AT 13:26 OF THE OPENING PERIOD – THE KINGS’ NETMINDER GAZING HEAVEN-WARD (ABOVE) BEFORE PLAY RESUMED (BELOW).

HARD TO BELIEVE THAT LEE STEMPNIAK JERSEYS ARE DOING BRISK BUSINESS HERE IN THE DESERT, BUT ONE FAN WAS CLAD IN SUCH AN ITEM (ABOVE) AS THE FIRST PERIOD WOUND TO A CLOSE (BELOW) – THE HOME SIDE MIRACULOUSLY ON EVEN TERMS.

PHOENIX BEGAN THE MIDDLE FRAME ON THE POWERPLAY (ABOVE) WITH DUSTIN BROWN OF THE KINGS OFF FOR INTERFERENCE; QUICK HAD TO BE SHARP (AND LUCKY) BELOW. 

WIDE-ANGLE VIEW OF ICE (ABOVE) FROM MY PERCH IN THE PRESS BOX.

L.A. CONTINUED TO APPLY HEAT ON SMITH AND BROKE THROUGH AGAIN (ABOVE) WHEN FORWARD DWIGHT KING STRUCK FOR A 2-1 LEAD AT 8:02 OF THE SECOND PERIOD.

SMITH COVERS UP (ABOVE AND BELOW) AFTER ANOTHER L.A. ADVANCE.

ANZE KOPITAR WAS CALLED FOR GOALTENDER INTERFERENCE (ABOVE) AFTER CRASHING INTO SMITH AND CAUSING THE NETMINDER TO LOSE HIS STICK.

PLAYER MEETINGS AT THE BENCH AND IN FACE-OFF CIRCLE (ABOVE) LEAD TO MARTIN HANZAL BEING EXCUSED FROM DRAW BY LINESMAN JAY SHARRERS. MEANWHILE, FELLOW LINESMAN SHANE HEYER DOES SOME HOUSE-KEEPING IN QUICK’S GOAL-CREASE (BELOW) UNDER WATCHFUL EYE OF KEVIN POLLOCK.

MIKKEL BOEDKER CELEBRATES BEHIND NET (ABOVE) AND WITH TEAMMATES (BELOW) AFTER SCORING GOAL AT 18:05 OF THE MIDDLE FRAME THAT DEADLOCKED THE OTHERWISE LOP-SIDED MATCH 2-2. IT WAS “SUDDEN-DEATH” BOEDKER’S FOURTH OF THE PLAYOFFS.

FANS BEHIND THE COYOTES BENCH EXULT (ABOVE) AS THE SECOND PERIOD ENDS (BELOW) WITH THEIR TEAM LOCKED IN A TIE.

THOUGH IT WAS CLOSE TO 10 P.M. BACK EAST, THE SUN WAS JUST SETTING HERE IN ARIZONA DURING SECOND INTERMISSION (ABOVE) AS TEAMS RETURNED TO THE ICE.

COYOTES FANS LOOKED ON IN DISMAY FROM UPPER DECK (ABOVE) AS DUSTIN BROWN PUT KINGS AHEAD FOR A THIRD TIME (AND FOR GOOD) AT 2:11 OF THE THIRD PERIOD (BELOW).

AS EXPECTED, GATHERINGS CONTINUED IN THE FINAL FRAME (ABOVE AND BELOW).

L.A. CONTINUED TO PESTER SMITH AND MAINTAIN ITS LEAD.

SMITH PUT HIS FEET UP AT THE BENCH (ABOVE) DURING A TV BREAK AS THE KINGS MAPPED STRATEGY (BELOW) IN FRONT OF CAPTAIN BROWN.

SMITH WENT FOR A SKATE LATE IN THE GAME TO RETRIEVE HIS GOAL-STICK (ABOVE) AND THEN STARTED FOR THE BENCH IN FAVOR OF AN EXTRA ATTACKER (BELOW) – A MOVE THAT BACKFIRED WHEN DWIGHT KING (74) POPPED HIS SECOND OF THE NIGHT INTO A VACATED COYOTES NET, CLINCHING THE GAME 1 TRIUMPH.

KING’S EMPTY-NETTER PROMPTED A MASS EXODUS (ABOVE).

AT THE FINAL BUZZER (ABOVE), L.A. PLAYERS POUR OFF THE BENCH TO MOB QUICK AND THEN LEAVE THE ICE WITH THEIR SIXTH ROAD VICTORY IN AS MANY GAMES THIS SPRING.

L.A. FANS LINGER (ABOVE) TO ENJOY THE TRIUMPH.

NIGHT WAS FALLING AS FANS LEFT THE ARENA (ABOVE) AND THE PARKING LOTS (BELOW) ON THE BUILDING’S WEST SIDE – TO RETURN FOR GAME 2 ON TUESDAY.

 

      

THE COYOTES’ MEDIA RELATIONS STAFF (RICH NAIRN, TIM BULMER AND CHRIS WOJCIK) HAVE PUT TOGETHER A TERRIFIC BOOKLET (ABOVE) DETAILING THE CLUB’S EXPLOITS THROUGH THE REGULAR SEASON AND FIRST HALF OF THE PLAYOFFS.

 

Email: howardLberger@gmail.com

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