Stanley Cup Finals: Go, Kings, Go!

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What team does this?  What team makes the playoffs in the second-to-last game of the regular season and then, almost too easily, beats the #1, #2 and #3 seeds of their conference to earn a spot in the Stanley Cup Finals?

No, it’s not the Boston Bruins or Chicago Blackhawks or Pittsburgh Penguins, winners of the last three Stanley Cups.  It’s the Los Angeles Kings.  Hard to believe, I know, this being Los Angeles where almost nobody knows anything about hockey, where anybody who is anyone covets a ticket to a Lakers basketball game because, don’t you know, you fight the traffic to get to Staples to be seen, not to watch the game being played and anyway, all the biggest stars in town cheer for the Lakers.  Ice hockey?  No way!  This is So Cal, where the temperature averages 75 degrees…not exactly hockey weather.  It’s the cherished land where the sun kisses the bare shoulders and blonde hair of our beautiful people…not exactly conducive to the long-sleeved hockey jerseys and wool hats you find in hockey towns like Boston or Vancouver.  Nobody follows ice hockey here in the desert when you have beautiful beaches and Hollywood stars to occupy your time.

Credit Image: © Duncan Williams/Cal Sport Media/ZUMAPRESS.com

Well, Los Angeles, you better get ready to change your freeway from the 1 to the 110 because our Kings – our much beloved but almost entirely unknown hockey team – are in the Stanley Cup Finals…and even favored to win!  Over the last month and a half, the playing field has been whittled down to the two top teams in the world and our team is one of them!  So, come back from Malibu and head to Staples because this team is definitely worth cheering for!

As if you didn’t already know, ice hockey is one of the best sports in the world.  In order to play it well, you must be fast, quick, powerful, skilled with a stick and agile.  And, you have to be all those things while going 25 mph on ice skates with padding on almost every part of your body!  You have to understand line changes (when to hop on and skate off the ice).  And, you have to be able to fight.  (Many people don’t like hockey because of the fighting but, really, it’s the best part of the game!)  If played properly, the game is a ballet on ice as players with sticks weave up and down the ice chasing a 3”x1” puck and attempt to score in the opponent’s net while being checked (hit) and keeping the other team from scoring.

But, ice hockey is not a very good television sport.  The puck is small and even though it’s black and the ice is white, it’s still difficult to see.  And, when it’s being passed between players and fought over in front of the net, it’s darn near impossible.  Sometimes, the only time fans know when to cheer is when the little red light over the net is lit – then, you know for (almost) sure that a goal has scored.  Unlike basketball or football, when the canvas, players and ball are big and easy to see and there’s always time to catch your breath, ice hockey moves at a nonstop, rapid-fire pace and so does the puck.  If you don’t know the basic strategies of ice hockey, then all you see are men flying around on skates.

So, as a public service to sports fans out there who don’t know hockey, here’s a brief and rudimentary primer to get you started:

  • The game begins with 12 men on the ice (six for each team), comprised of: an offensive line (left wing, center, right wing), a defensive line (two defensemen) and one goalie.
  • The object of the game is to score in the opponent’s net more than the opponent scores in yours.
  • The game is split into three 20-minute periods with between-period intermissions (that’s when you go to bathroom, get your snacks or watch the Zambonis cover the ice with fresh water to make it smooth again).
  • During the regular season, if the game is still tied after the third period, there’s a five-minute overtime period (sudden death; whichever team scores is the winner).  If the game is still tied after the overtime period, a Shootout occurs; this is when each team lines up its three best shooters and, alternating one at a time, try to score on the opposing goalie.  Shootouts continue until a team scores.  In the National Hockey League playoffs, there is no Shootout – games go into as many overtime periods as necessary before a tie-breaking goal is scored. 
  • If a player is caught making an infraction, he is sent to the Penalty Box, usually for two minutes.  When this happens, the opponent is on a Power Play – they have five players skating while the other team has only four.  If the Power Play team scores, it’s called a Power Play goal; if the four-man team scores during the opponent’s Power Play, that’s called a Short-handed Goal.

There are many more rules, of course, but these will get you into the sport and once you’re there, you won’t be disappointed.  You’ll soon be swept up into the action and mesmerized by the power, skill and excitement of the game. 

Now, let’s get back to the Kings.  At the beginning of the season, the Kings were so bad, they fired their coach.  They were underachieving and looked more like the Bad News Bears than L.A.’s professional hockey team.  The inconsistencies continued during the season – flashes of greatness and then moments of awfulness.  The Kings were lucky to make it into the playoffs, going in the back door two days before the season ended.  And now they’re in the Cup Finals playing againt the New Jersey Devils.  What’s the deal with that? 

You could attribute it to skill, speed, agility, strength, power, the ability to score…and you’d be right, of course.  You could give credit to their new coach who guided them to improve and doesn’t let them forget their one and only goal: win the Stanley Cup.  But, I think their appearance in the Cup Finals is about more than the typical line items on a score sheet.  This team also has those intangible things that you can’t itemize, for example, determination, intensity, drive, passion and my favorite: heart. 

This team has not lost a playoff game on the road.  They went through the first three playoff series with an almost-unheard of record of 12-2.  They have already broken the NHL record for most consecutive playoff wins away from their home ice.  Earlier this week, they went to New Jersey to play their first Stanley Cup Finals game and came away with an overtime win.  This is a team that does not want to lose.  Better still, this team believes it can win.  It’s not only apparent on the ice.  It’s in their soul.  It’s in their game faces.  It’s in their hearts.

So, if you’re a Kings fan, continue on.  If you’re a hockey fan but not necessarily a Kings fan, give it up and start cheering for this Team of Destiny.  And, if you’re not a fan of hockey, what’re you waiting for?  Jump on the Kings bandwagon – it’s all right.  No one will look at you askance because of your newfound love.  We’ll embrace you.

Because, if you don’t follow the L.A. Kings during these last few games of the Stanley Cup Finals, you’re missing heart in action.

Have I convinced you to cheer for the Kings?  Post your thoughts below.

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