It's no longer about the goaltending, but it started with the goaltending.
In their swift march to the Stanley Cup Final the Los Angeles Kings beat opponents by wearing them down, outsmarting them zone to zone, out-battling them station to station. But that's how they get you over the long haul -- how, over seven games, they can feel confident that the odds in hockey's nightly coin flip are tilted in their favor.
In the short term though -- in series that last only four or five games -- they need more than that. In games where they start off slow as they did in both Game 4 and Game 5 of their Conference Final series against the Phoenix Coyotes, the Kings need Jonathan Quick to be there to make sure the game doesn't get away from them.
Fortunately for the Kings, Quick has been there more often than not in all three rounds, which is why this team has won its series in four or five games while their Stanley Cup Final opponent will have required six or seven games more than once.
But wait, it's not about the goaltending, right? Right. It's about the long haul, and that's where three good lines, three good defensive pairs and a smart gameplan mean that the Kings can now lean on Quick only in emergencies. The Kings are a team that can outplay you and beat you without needing a savior in goal. But that savior has helped them finish series with expedience, paving a smooth path to the Final.
How did they get here?
Ironically, there is no way the Kings would be here without Quick. Quick put up a Vezina Trophy-worthy season to carry the team just barely into the Western Conference's eighth and final playoff seed because the Kings were the second-lowest scoring team in the NHL during the regular season.
But three things changed and allowed the Kings to storm into the playoffs as an underdog in seed only, as one which would mow through the top three seeds in the West in methodical, merciless fashion:
1. They changed coaches, from Terry Murray to Darryl Sutter, and received all the small-yet-significant benefits that usually entails: small tweaks to the system, a fresh outlook for frustrated players, and the overdue change in luck that always accompanies a team that hit rock bottom under the previous coach.
2. They traded Jack Johnson for Jeff Carter in a clever transaction. Not only is Johnson an overrated defenseman (thanks to his offense), but he's also a defenseman the Kings didn't need: They had younger, better replacements waiting in the wings. The Johnson/Carter trade not only got rid of The Johnson Question, it added a much-needed top-six forward in Carter. Earlier in the season, the Kings had used Trent Hunter, a slow winger who had seen better days and only made the team -- after being dumped by the Islanders and Devils -- on a training camp tryout. Now Hunter's in Manchester.
3. They found their ideal line combinations. Even after the Carter trade, the Kings' difficulty identifying their best combos lingered, and 2011 trade deadline acquisition Dustin Penner continued to underperform. But putting Penner with ex-Flyers Mike Richards and Jeff Carter woke up Penner's game and replaced his previously sleepy checking output with younger, hungrier wingers like Dwight King.
Who can stop them?
No one, not at the rate they're going. No one should stop them. The teams currently battling for the chance on opposite sides of the Hudson River should be afraid.
Granted, as mentioned before, hockey has a high coin-flip element to it. Anything can happen over seven games. An injury could prove catastrophic. But if the Kings meet the Rangers, the Rangers will be hoping to shot block their way to the correct side of that coin flip. And if it's Devils, well the Devils will be more aggressive in the attack and will provide a more balanced set of lines to match, but the Kings are still deeper from the goal crease to the faceoff dot.
Their star, Anze Kopitar, is a two-way force that the Rangers or Devils will have trouble checking.
Their captain, Dustin Brown, is an annoying, hard-checking,
diving penalty-drawing machine who produces and agitates.
Their young prodigy, Drew Doughty, anchors the blueline and appears to be getting better as the season gets longer...almost as if he recovered from his training camp holdout at just the right time.
And guys like Richards and Carter who have been key cogs on a previous Stanley Cup finalist are now supporting parts that don't have to carry the team on their shoulders (though sometimes they do have to carry Penner).
Darryl Sutter's scheme has the Kings playing disciplined, positionally sound hockey in all three zones. Though not blessed with great team speed, they are predatory on the forecheck and quick to assist each other in board battles. They are required to win those board battles or hear about it. They are required to come back deep enough to provide quick outlets out of their zone, short-circuiting the forecheck of opponents like the Blues that pride themselves on their own forecheck.
It's been just 14 games for the Kings, which also means they've logged much fewer travel miles than the typical Western Stanley Cup finalist. They've been the best team in the playoffs through three rounds, and they're better than both teams that still have a chance to face them. Which is why, while it's still a flip of the coin, all signs point to the Los Angeles Kings lifting the Stanley Cup for the first time in their history.