It wasn’t the ideal way Darryl Sutter would have liked his Los Angeles Kings to enter the playoffs. Barely making it in as the conference's lowest seed, the future didn’t look bright for L.A.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. Not like this, not at this time, not with this team.
Did the Kings have all the talent in the world just under a month ago? Of course they did, which was why it was such a head scratcher that this team couldn’t find their way for the first 82 games of the regular season. They couldn’t put together that type of season that Southern California has seen since a man named Gretzky controlled the ice in L.A.
People were quick to point fingers. Like any big market team, the first guy to be blamed was Dean Lombardi. With all this money, how could you not build a winner? Like the New York Rangers in the past, fans were getting fed up with dishing out big paychecks to guys like Mike Richards and trying to "buy" a championship.
And for seven months, it looked like all the pundits were correct. This team was one series away from another disappointing season. All that stood in front of L.A. and their Hollywood golf courses was the Vancouver Canucks.
Then something magical happened.
A group of individuals, led by a man hired on December 20th, 2011, for this sole reason, came together as a team. Sutter had the track record, previously taking the Calgary Flames to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2004. He had the edgy side needed to coach a team in a major market. He had the fire to lead this group of extremely talented men. But possibly most important, he had the locker room presence where players wanted to play for him.
The L.A. Kings are the perfect example of a team coming together at exactly the right time. They were second to last in the NHL in scoring during the regular season, had a mid-season coaching change and were never guaranteed a playoff spot until the last weekend of the season.
But they got hot right when they needed to and they steam rolled their way into the Stanley Cup Finals beating the Canucks, St. Louis Blues and Phoenix Coyotes, becoming only the second team in NHL history to beat the top three conference seeds in the playoffs.
The only thing that stood in front of L.A. and completing their magic carpet ride was the New Jersey Devils. After going up 3-0, we all now know what happened. New Jersey made it a series before L.A. completely threw down the hammer on Monday night, winning the Stanley Cup with a 6-1 rout of the Devils.
The 2012 season for the L.A. Kings was sort of an anomaly, an enigma. You just never knew what team you were going to get. Until Wednesday, April 11th; The start of their journey, the start of this transformation of a team from a group of under achieving, high paid hockey players, to determined veterans who knew how to get the job done.
If you wondered about the decision to bring in Sutter, just look at what he was able to do with a guy like Jeff Carter. Carter is a player that any team would love to have, on paper. No one thought he was the star and captain material that he claimed to be. Like Richards, his former teammate in Philadelphia, he could never get the job done with the Flyers and soon became one of many headaches for the Columbus Blue Jackets. Traded to L.A. for defenseman Jack Johnson, he turned his season, and quite possibly career, around.
Carter became a force on a line with Richards and Dustin Penner and finally proved to the hockey world just why he is worth the high paying contract he demands. His offensive ability was second to none in the Championship series and in photos after the game, you could see Carter hugging and high fiving Sutter.
Sutter brought a form of tough-love to L.A., something New York has seen lately with John Tortorella. He wasn’t going to let ego’s get in the way and was going to build confidence in a different way, a way no one in L.A. has seen before. His aggressive attitude and coaching style resonated with every play and it all clicked in mid-April.
The team went from having the potential to getting it done. They went from great players who haven’t won anything to star players who own their sport. They went from the #8 seed to Stanley Cup Champions.