Instant Karma's going to get you, John Lennon warned. Bad karma is coming after me, predicted Warren Zevon, co-writer of Hit Somebody! The Hockey Song (which, contrary to popular belief, was not about Erik Gryba on Lars Eller).
But when the defending Stanley Cup Los Angeles Kings sit back and digest their first two losses in their playoff series against the St. Louis Blues, the shift in their karmic fortunes will presumably be high on coach Darryl Sutter's mind, him being a new-age guy and all. Either that, or the team's inability to score a goal at even strength.
A year ago, everything that could go right for the Kings in the playoffs did. They drew as a first-round opponent a Vancouver Canucks team missing its top goal-scorer, Daniel Sedin. They drew in the second round a St. Louis Blues team besieged by goaltending issues after their playoff starter, Jaroslav Halak, was injured. In the third round, they got the hard-working but largely over-matched Phoenix Coyotes and then, in the Stanley Cup, a New Jersey Devils team, a beatable sixth seed that had emerged after the odds-on favourites, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the New York Rangers and the Boston Bruins, all stumbled along the way.
The Kings stayed healthy, got some unexpectedly timely scoring from the NHL's 29th-ranked offence and received an exceptional goaltending performance from Jonathan Quick, who won the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP. In short, everything fell into place for them on what turned into an unstoppable 16-4 playoff run.
It was as if all the good fortune due them following 45 years of failing to win a championship came together in one two-month period, including the exorcism of the Marty McSorley illegal stick penalty that cost them a shot at the 1993 Stanley Cup.
So now, here we are in 2013 and, two games in, it has been a complete reversal of fortune for all the Kings men. All the games that they found a way to win last year, they found a way to lose against the Blues.
In the opener, a turnover by Quick led to a shorthanded unassisted goal by the Blues' Alex Steen and 1-0 series lead for St. Louis.
In the second game, they were nursing a 1-0 lead, only to give up the tying goal to Patrick Berglund early in the third period. Just as the game looked as if it were heading to overtime for a second consecutive time, defenceman Barrrett Jackman stepped up on the play and blasted a slap shot past Quick's glove hand that he couldn't handle. This is the same Barrett Jackman that had 20 goals in 598 career games heading into this season and managed just three more in the lockout shortened 48; the same Barrett Jackman that had one goal last year and zero the year before.
Can somebody say Bryce Salvador?
For better or worse, this is the nature of the NHL playoffs in the age of parity – whole series can swing on the tiniest of developments. It is why coaches preach attention to details until they're blue in the face.
In the case of Quick's gaffe in the opener, there wasn't much doubt that he would bounce back from his miscue because he has in the past.
Quick is one of the most competitive goalies of his era, and has a little bit of Ron Hextall in him, in terms of temperament and approach. But the loss – and even the circumstances of the loss – helped the Blues immeasurably from a psychological perspective. L.A. had won eight in a row, regulation and overtime, playoff and regular season, over the Blues going into the series. They were in their heads.
Internally, St. Louis had to start believing they could beat the Kings – and after the opener, that frisson of doubt had been removed. Now, it's L.A.'s turn to deal with an opponent suddenly in a far better place, mentally. Last year, the Kings rolled out to 3-0 leads in all four series and finished with a cumulative record of 16-4. This year, they lost as many games in the first five days of the playoffs as they did in the first six weeks a year ago.
They could still turn it around, of course. L.A. had a poor road record this season but was 19-4-1 at home, something they'll be counting on to continue for Games 3 and 4. They were a surprisingly good scoring team this year (10th overall, with a 2.73 goals-per-game average). But Anze Kopitar is in a goal-scoring funk, Jeff Carter has cooled after his hot start, and no one else is stepping up to fill the offensive void. That two-game suspension to team captain Dustin Brown at the end of the season has skewed their chemistry, and so far, no amount of line juggling has provided any solutions.
Meanwhile, the Blues are playing with house money now – having won their two home games and likely would be content with a split in L.A., knowing that would give them three chances to wrap up the series if they managed it, two on home ice.
Or as Zevon put it, for the Kings, dealing with bad karma, "it's uphill all the way."
AND FURTHERMORE: If the Kings exit in the first round, it will not exactly be stop-the-presses news, given how difficult it has been for defending Stanley Cup champions in the post-2005 lockout era to accomplish much of anything the year after they win. In the seven years between lockouts, four Stanley Cup champions lost in the opening round the next year and a fifth, the Carolina Hurricanes, missed the playoffs altogether the year after they won. The only exceptions were the 2009 champion Pittsburgh Penguins, who won a round the next year before losing to the Montreal Canadiens, and the 2008 champion Detroit Red Wings, who got back to the final and then lost the rematch to the Penguins. Detroit is also the last team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions (1997-98). There have been nine different champions in each of the past nine seasons.
If the Kings are looking for any kind of historical solace, there is perhaps something to be found in the 2006 playoffs, when Carolina lost the first two games (at home no less!) to the Montreal Canadiens, including a bad 6-1 beat down in the opener, and then came back and won the Stanley Cup. And as Kirk Muller reminded us the other day, when Montreal became the last Canadian team to win a Stanley Cup back in 1993, the Canadiens also lost the first two games of their opening series to the Quebec Nordiques.
RED WINGS ALERT: The Detroit Red Wings won a massively entertaining 5-4 overtime decision over the Anaheim Ducks Thursday night, presumably after a lot of people had clicked off their television sets, the hour getting late and the Red Wings seemingly in control 4-1 in the third period. But then the Ducks tied it, Sheldon Souray took a late penalty, and the Red Wings capitalized by winning it in OT. It will leave Ducks' coach Bruce Boudreau with a question – does he switch to Viktor Fasth for Game 3 in Detroit, on the grounds that Fasth gave them some exceptional goaltending as a first-year NHLer? Or stick with Jonas Hiller who was solid in the opener, less so in the second game? Detroit, of course, has no such options. They'll roll out Jimmy Howard, no matter what … The Red Wings will be without defenceman Dan DeKeyser for the rest of the playoffs. Their recent free-agent signing, who'd played well since stepping into the lineup, broke his thumb in the second game of the Ducks' series, a game which also saw the return of Todd Bertuzzi. One of Carlo Colaiacovo, Ian White or Brian Lashoff will go in for DeKeyser.
AND FINALLY: With Cory Schneider still sidelined with that "body" injury – sorry, I laugh out loud every time I hear it framed that way - Roberto Luongo gets the call in goal for the Vancouver Canucks. The Luongo-Schneider, Schneider-Luongo sideshow has dominated the news and defined the season for the Canucks, but you wonder: If GM Mike Gillis had traded Luongo instead of keeping him around as an expensive insurance policy, would they be any further ahead at this moment? Or would the matchup in goal for the second game vs. San Jose be Antti Niemi vs. Ben Scrivens?