L.A. Kings One Step From a Dynasty

THE RIVALRY CONTINUES

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MAPLE LEAFS vs. CANADIENS, 7:00, AIR CANADA CENTRE – SPORTSNET

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Oct. 8) — It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

A hard salary cap in the National Hockey League, most believed, would make it nearly impossible for teams to win consecutive or multiple Stanley Cup championships. With the ice theoretically even, perennial bottom-dwellers would rise through the ranks and challenge for the silver mug. In no time at all, such top-ten spenders as the New York Rangers, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles would be looking in the rear-view mirror at small-market rivals Buffalo, Calgary, Columbus and Florida. The NHL would stand for parity.

So much for the script.

As the puck drops tonight on the 2014-15 season, the Los Angeles Kings are considered a prime threat to become the first team since the Edmonton Oilers of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Co. to win three Stanley Cup titles in a four-year span. Oilers did it in 1984, 1985 and 1987; then won again in 1988. Since that time, only two teams — the 1991 and 1992 Pittsburgh Penguins; the 1997 and 1998 Detroit Red Wings — have repeated as the NHL’s champion. No one is anticipating a reprisal of 1976 to 1988 when three teams – Montreal, New York Islanders and Edmonton – split 13 Stanley Cup victories. But, neither did the salary cap era intend for one team to win three of four.

That’s what Los Angeles begins gunning for tonight (10:00 EDT Sportsnet-1) against San Jose after raising its 2014 Cup banner at the Staples Center.

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ALEC MARTINEZ SCORES OVERTIME GOAL ON HENRIK LUNDQVIST IN GAME 5 OF THE STANLEY CUP FINAL – JUNE 13, 2014 – TO GIVE LOS ANGELES KINGS THEIR SECOND NHL CHAMPIONSHIP IN THREE YEARS.

When healthy and playing at full strength, the Kings do not have a weakness. The three pillars of a championship team — elite goaltending (Jonathan Quick); a Norris Trophy candidate on defense (Drew Doughty); size and depth at center (Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Jarret Stoll, Mike Richards) — are as good as any in the game. More than a few hockey people will tell you that Kopitar and Doughty are the two best players on Earth; their unquestioned ability to elevate performance as stakes increase enhancing that claim. The key, center-ice position is augmented by Tyler Toffoli (seven goals, 14 points in the playoffs last spring); Trevor Lewis and Jordan Nolan (members of both L.A. Stanley Cup teams). No NHL club comes close in this critical area.

That said, the Chicago Blackhawks appear to be consensus favorite to win the Cup for the third time in five seasons. Were that to happen, Los Angeles and Chicago would split four NHL titles — a first since 1970–73 when Boston and Montreal shared dominance. The Blackhawks also have the three pillars in abundance: Corey Crawford (goal); Duncan Keith (defense); Jonathan Toews, Andrew Shaw, Brad Richards (center). While Chicago is not as deep as Los Angeles up the middle, Toews is the NHL’s most talented performer in the clutch. Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson provide Keith ample support on the blue-line. Crawford and Quick are essentially peers.

Though the West has been best for awhile – with more than a half-dozen strong teams – it appears that Chicago and L.A. is the universal pick to meet in the Conference final for a third consecutive spring. And though mildly surprising, it would not be a shock if any of Anaheim, San Jose, St. Louis, Colorado, Dallas and Minnesota were to upend the Blackhawks or Kings.

The Eastern Conference has been a one-horse race in the pre-season for nearly half-a-decade and Boston should be favored again to compete for the Cup. But, the Canadiens took some luster off that consensus in the 2014 playoffs and Tampa Bay (with a healthy Ben Bishop in goal) appears to have narrowed the gap as well. Nor should anyone discount the Rangers and Henrik Lundqvist. Still, Boston is the deepest, most physical team in the Conference and will be eager to bounce back after the Montreal upset.

As such, I am calling for a first-ever Cup clash between the Kings and Bruins — Los Angeles cementing its dynasty with a third triumph in four years.

SPORTSLOGOS.NET

LEAFS HOME OPENER — 50 YEARS AGO

To begin the 1964-65 NHL season, the Maple Leafs were the three-time defending Stanley Cup champion — having beaten Chicago in 1962; Detroit in 1963 and 1964. The Boston Bruins were in town for the Leafs home opener on Oct. 17, 1964 – still two seasons prior to the arrival of Bobby Orr. Toronto whipped Boston, 7-2. Rookie winger Ron Ellis scored the first of his 332 career goals (all with the Leafs), fooling Ed Johnston with a slap-shot from the right side. Here is the Maple Leaf Gardens program – and some contents – from that night nearly half-a-century ago: 

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FOUR BOSTON PLAYERS – ED JOHNSTON, ORLAND KURTENBACH, FORBES KENNEDY AND MURRAY OLIVER – WOULD LATER SUIT UP FOR THE LEAFS.

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THIS MUST HAVE BEEN NEAT: MAPLE LEAF ROAD GAMES WERE SHOWN THROUGHOUT THE CITY AT SEVEN DIFFERENT THEATERS. ADMISSION JUST $2.50 OR $2.00.

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LEAFS HOME OPENER — 1969-70

Toronto and Montreal faced off in the Maple Leafs 1969-70 home opener. The game ended in a 2-2 tie. Leafs and Canadiens would both miss the playoffs that season. The Gardens program, here, from Oct. 15, 1969:

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LEAFS GM/COACH PUNCH IMLACH WAS FIRED AFTER A PLAYOFF SWEEP BY BOSTON ON APR. 6, 1969. DURING THE ’69-70 SEASON, IMLACH WROTE A WEEKLY COLUMN FOR THE OLD TORONTO TELEGRAM. HE WOULD BE HIRED AS GM/COACH OF THE EXPANSION BUFFALO SABRES THE FOLLOWING YEAR.

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A VERY YOUNG DAVE HODGE AND LEGENDARY BILL STEPHENSON, WHO RECENTLY PASSED AWAY.

LEAFS HOME OPENER — 1970-71

St. Louis Blues were in town for the Maple Leafs home opener. Veteran goalie Jacques Plante played his first game for the Leafs after two seasons in St. Louis. Toronto won the match, 7-3. A wild melee erupted after the bell to end the second period with all players poring onto the ice. The main events were Jim Harrison (Leafs) vs. Noel Picard (Blues) and Jim Dorey (Leafs) vs. Bob Plager (Blues). Toronto led 4-0 after the opening frame on goals by Paul Henderson, Mike Walton, Harrison and Garry Monahan. The Maple Leaf Gardens program from Oct. 14, 1970:

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MAPLE LEAF GARDENS ISSUED ALBUMS FOR ALL 14 TEAMS IN 1970-71.

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IN 1970-71, NHL TEAMS BEGAN WEARING PREDOMINANTLY WHITE UNIFORMS AT HOME AND COLORED SETS ON THE ROAD. IT WOULD REMAIN THAT WAY THROUGH THE 2002-03 SEASON. LEAFS DEBUTED THEIR NEW (AND CURRENT PRIMARY) LOGO – AS SEEN HERE ON PROGRAM INSERT COVER.

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