When Los Angeles Kings general manager Dean Lombardi was drawing it all up on paper back in September, this is how he imagined it would unfold – the way the first period did against the St. Louis Blues this past weekend.
There was Mike Richards, acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers to add depth and leadership, scoring right off the bat, 30 seconds in, to create early momentum.
There was Anze Kopitar, his No. 1 centre, crafting a beautiful short-handed goal, using his size and his reach to turn the opposing goaltender, Brian Elliott, into a pretzel.
There was his captain, Dustin Brown, creating the takeaway on Kopitar's goal with aggressive fore-checking.
There was other Dustin, Penner – before the pancake debacle – fitting in nicely on the second line with Richards, bulling to the net to set up the opening goal.
This fascination with coulda, woulda, shoulda is a common trait, shared by all NHL GMs no matter what their level of experience. They all entertain these September fantasies – before reality crushes hopes, before the plans they carefully crafted get tested on the ice.
The sad truth, in hockey as in real life, is that fantasies rarely ever play out the way you imagine they might. Instead, your sense of what Richards may accomplish gets derailed in December by a concussion and his scoring goes completely dry for half a season.
Your expectations for Kopitar and Brown – that they can play leading roles on a Stanley Cup challenger – seem wildly optimistic. They are playing so uninspired by February that your new coach, same as the old coach, needs to call them out. And even in your wildest dreams, you cannot conjure up Pancake Gate, as it relates to Penner, a fiasco of the first order, when your main trading-deadline acquisition of the previous year suffers an unexpected breakfast-table injury.
But thanks to an NHL that is so tight from top to bottom, all it takes these days to compete is to stay afloat for the first 60 to 70 games of the season, which about 25 teams managed to do, and then finish well.
Consider that at the de facto three-quarter mark of the season, the Kings and Calgary Flames had identical records, 66 points from 61 games, and both were outside the top eight in the West. The Kings needed about 70 games to sort themselves out, played 10 strong games down the stretch, mailed in the final two and entered the playoffs as an unknown wild card, sitting there with some dangerous potential because of the overall consistency of its goaltending, and the certainty that all the key pieces, from defenceman Drew Doughty on out, could be better – in some cases, a lot better.
So three weeks into these playoffs, the Kings are a cumulative 6-1, having knocked off the No. 1 team in the league, the Vancouver Canucks, in five games, and now have the Blues (tied for No. 2 in the league) on the ropes. Heading into Thursday's third game of the Western Conference semi-final, at home, the Kings have a 2-0 series lead.
Once the dust settled after the opening round, the four teams left standing in the West – Los Angeles, the St. Louis Blues, the Phoenix Coyotes and the Nashville Predators – all shared one quality, exceptional goaltending.
Two – the Kings and Preds – ended up with Vézina Trophy finalists, Jonathan Quick and Pekka Rinne, respectively. A third, St. Louis, had the best defensive record in the league, shared between Elliott and Jaroslav Halak, its co-starters. And the fourth, Phoenix, had Mike Smith, who was likely the odd-man-out in close Vézina balloting. Unless the games spilled into multiple goalless overtimes, it meant that someone needed to blink first – and thus far, it has been St. Louis and Nashville, who've strayed away from their defensive commitment in the early stages of the second round.
Quick, by contrast, hasn't blinked. So the question was put to him: There's an opportunity here for some team, without much playoff history, to do something unprecedented, right?
"We're confident in our group, but it's way too early to start thinking about that," replied Quick, echoing a common theme in the Kings' dressing room – that the games are scheduled so far apart in these playoffs that you can only take them one at a time and see where it stands. But the Kings suddenly have the series in their grasp, with the next two games at home, where coach Darryl Sutter says he prefers to play.
All they need to prove is that these are the real Kings – Kopitar and Richards, Brown and Penner – and not the squad that clip-clopped along for so much of the regular season. The Kings have only made it as far as the third round once before – in 1993, when Wayne Gretzky was the captain, a year in which they lost the Stanley Cup final to the Montreal Canadiens. That year, they were considered a team of destiny. Maybe this year, as one local put it, they will be a team of Dustin-y instead.