June 4, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Kings fans cheer against the New Jersey Devils during the second period in game three of the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals at the Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE
The Kings easy run of things in the 2012 playoffs hasn't given casual hockey fans in Los Angeles the chance to latch on to the bandwagon.
If the Los Angeles Kings win Wednesday night and capture their inevitable first-ever Stanley Cup Championship since arriving in Southern California in the fall of 1967, they will go down in history as one of the best Stanley Cup Playoff teams of all time, and perhaps the best in the modern era.
It isn't that crazy to say: they're the first team to ever go up 3-0 in four consecutive series. Under the current playoff format, no team has gone through the post-season losing just three games, much less the two the Kings have dropped. Even if they lose Wednesday, they could still set a record for fewest playoff losses under this format. If they win, they're the first team to go through the playoffs with only two losses since the 1988 Edmonton Oilers. Before that, the last team to win a Stanley Cup only losing two games? The 1977 Montreal Canadiens who, by the way, only needed to win 12 games under that playoff format.
Records aside, it's a crazy run that's a testament to the coaching of Darryl Sutter, the man who hired him and put this team together, Dean Lombardi, and a hardworking team with the perfect combination of grit and tenacity in Dustin Brown, skill from Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter, and the all-world goaltending from Jonathan Quick that typically makes for such an impressive champion.
But could the Kings' near perfection have cost them a bandwagon?
Now, it's never good to compare Boston and Los Angeles as sports cities, even if you're Bill Simmons, and especially when you're talking about hockey. But -- while Boston is a natural hockey city -- the Bruins probably ran through a post-season in the absolute perfect way to develop a bandwagon of followers who will watch the games and purchase tickets or merch. Forget that the Bruins were one win away from a conference final the year before, and had been knocking on Lord Stanley's door a while now: let's just look back at how they did it last year.
In the first round, you had a seven-game series against the team's greatest historical adversary, the Montreal Canadiens. Not only that, but the team came back from 2-0 down in the series to do it. Then, they vanquished the foe that had eliminated them from last year's post-season in embarrassing fashion, sweeping the Philadelphia Flyers. That's a cathartic way to exorcise some demons.
Where do we go from there? Well, a seven-game Eastern Conference Final with the Tampa Bay Lightning. While Tampa may not be as sexy an opponent as Montreal or Philadelphia, a seven-game third-round playoff series doesn't really hinge on the opposition. One benefit, however, can be a regional pride aspect, as teams from the south always have their hockey fandom called into question and get accused of bandwagoning. Again, however, nothing that really matters when the series goes seven and finishes with one of the most exciting Game 7's many of us have ever seen.
From there, you get another seven-game series in the Stanley Cup Finals with tons of adversity and an instant rivalry. The Burrows bite, tons of hitting and scrapping, the Aaron Rome headshot on Nathan Horton. Again, I can't be more clear... somebody tried to bite a dude. There's the whole "USA vs. Canada" angle, for whatever that draws, and an East Coast vs. West Coast rivalry. That it also went to seven games and saw the Bruins fight back from a 2-0 deficit was another bonus. By the end of the playoffs, 43 percent of Boston was tuning into the Bruins, as well as 25 percent of nearby Providence. Not only did the Bruins build a citywide bandwagon (28 percent of Boston on average tuned into the Finals), they built a regional one throughout New England (17 percent of Providence and 5 percent of Hartford on average tuned in during Boston vs. Vancouver).
Another great way to build it is the manner in which the Kings' Stanley Cup opponent, the New Jersey Devils, did it. There tends to be apathy for the Devils in the first round of the post-season, as New Jersey had become easy Conference Quarterfinal fodder for other teams in recent years, and because the Devils tend to build slow. The series vs. Florida, however, saw raucous crowds at Prudential Center and the team coming back from a 3-2 deficit with two overtime victories, the latter of which hit an 11-year high on the Devils' regional sports network.
For rounds two and three, you couldn't have picked a better opponent for the Devils to thwart than Philadelphia (five games) and the New York Rangers (six games). Not only are those two teams that get Devils fans riled up, they are two teams that tend to have fans within the same television market, elevating ratings and fan interest. Fans face off at work and school over their respective hockey teams because they all inhabit the same area. It gets a lot of casual people to tune in, something I can attest to, living in the area. I was seeing people discuss hockey on Facebook that used to make fun of me for even liking hockey in high school. It paid off for New Jersey in the 5.1 rating the New York market drew for Game 1 of the Finals, the second-highest rating for a Game 1 ever in the market.
Compare all that to how the Kings did it. The five-game defeat of the defending Western Conference Champions, the Vancouver Canucks, would have been an okay start. It would have gotten people to take notice, but remember, the Lakers and Clippers were still in action all the way through the Kings' victory over Phoenix in round three. After the Vancouver series, you get a sweep over St. Louis. With the games in St. Louis starting a little on the early side for viewers in L.A., plus no real regional rivalry, a four-game sweep was probably not the way to get the Kings extra notice.
The Coyotes could have been an interesting match. Though about a five-hour car ride away, Phoenix is still a divisional rival, and a city with which (through hoops) Los Angeles has a bit of a sports rivalry. All that said, with the Lakers and Clippers still playing, and no real hatred developing between the two clubs until the series' deciding game, another 3-0 Los Angeles lead could've gotten people to think "well, no real reason to worry, I'll join up again in the Finals." L.A.'s inability to draw over 3 percent of the market on television until the New Jersey series speaks to this.
So, it's the Finals and the Lakers and Clippers are gone, but the problem is that this team yet again faces no adversity, going up 3-0 over the Devils. The ratings have been pretty good, and are growing (a 4.2 for Game 1, a 5.5 for Game 2, and despite the move to NBC Sports Network for Game 3, it still hit a 4.9). Sure, a lot of people will tune in to see the Stanley Cup get handed out on Los Angeles ice Wednesday, but it would've been nice to see at least one other game draw an audience as big as the 6.0 the Ducks drew for their clinching Game 5 back in 2007. Honestly, a loss tonight would probably help, as Game 5 is back on an NBC broadcast and would once again put in just a tiny bit of adversity to the Kings.
Now, not to be completely negative, chances are the Kings will get to see the effects of their Stanley Cup win next season. They will likely sell out every game, and -- though it was negotiated before the run -- a new $250 million television deal with Fox will likely gain them more promotion and better ratings. It's hard, however, not to imagine what the Kings could have done with a run similar to Boston's or even New Jersey's. A bunch of thrilling, seven-game series. A brutal battle with the Sharks for California supremacy, or (had they made the playoffs) finally, a Kings-Ducks SoCal showdown.
I'm sure that the hardcore fans, however, will be completely oblivious to all of this, and fine with getting it over with either tonight or Saturday. They've waited 45 years for this, and they won't at all care how many people are doing it along with them.