The seminal 1993 NHL season conjures up a variety of hockey memories, depending upon geographic bias, rooting interests and, of course, overt partisanship.
In Canada, 1993 was the last time a team operating north of the U.S. border actually won the Stanley Cup. That was the Montreal Canadiens, who defeated the Los Angeles Kings and Wayne Gretzky in a five-game final that featured memorable performances from Patrick Roy and John LeClair, along with the series-changing Marty McSorley stick measurement.
The 1993 post-season also represented the previous high water mark for the Kings, the NHL's longest-running California entry, a team which – on Tuesday night – added a fresh chapter to their here-to-fore mostly undistinguished record book. By defeating the Phoenix Coyotes 4-3 in overtime Tuesday night, on a clutch goal by Dustin Penner with 2:18 remaining in the first extra period, the Kings advanced to just their second Stanley Cup final in team history. In a well-played, emotionally charged game before a crowd of 17,148 at Jobing.com Arena, the Kings won their eighth in a row on the road in these playoffs, and meant they have now qualified for the final in just 14 games, two over the minimum.
"I'm proud of the players," said Kings' coach Darryl Sutter. "That's the biggest thing for me, it's a hell of an accomplishment for the players. They're the guys that sweat and bleed. That's what it's about. I know from being a player, I'm proud of them guys.
Penner's winning goal came off a rebound, just seconds after a controversial play when Kings' captain Dustin Brown collided knee-on-knee and shoulder-on-shoulder against the Coyotes' defenceman Michael Roszival. Roszival had to be helped off the ice and likely hadn't even made it to the dressing room before Penner salvaged a challenging season with what he called the most important goal of his career thus far.
"Hopefully there's a couple more waiting in the finals," said Penner. "I was at the right place at the right time."
The victory continues an unexpected, extraordinary run for a Kings team that didn't even make the playoffs until the final 72 hours of the regular season and edged in as the bottom seed in the Western Conference.
L.A. will open the Stanley Cup final on the road, next Wednesday, against either the New Jersey Devils or the New York Rangers.
On a night when the temperatures outside the arena hovered around a scorching 40C (but presumably had no effect on ice changes), NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly was on hand to present the Clarence Campbell Bowl to Brown in the usual quick perfunctory fashion. Under no circumstances was Brown about the pick up the trophy, a superstition that has developed over time.
"It's called the Stanley Cup playoffs for a reason," said Brown.
True enough. The Kings have their sights set on a larger prize – the Stanley Cup – and are mindful of the fact that they've been living off the residual memories of '93 for too long.
"We've been there once in 20 years and twice in 45," said Brown. "There hasn't been much success as an organization. We've got an opportunity to play for the Cup, but there's a lot of work to be done. We want to make history."
The Kings rebounded from Sunday's 2-0 loss to the Coyotes, in what could have been a series-clinching game, by getting their other goals from Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Mike Richards.
Kopitar had a sensational game, especially on the penalty kill, where his work conjured up memories of Henrik Zetterberg's Conn Smythe trophy form some four years ago. Kopitar, the unofficial MVP of the series, was especially good in the third period when the Coyotes had a two-man advantage for 1:42, but couldn't get off a decent shot. The advantage was ultimately negated when Martin Hanzal took a penalty for interfering with Kopitar.
Doughty, too, had an exceptional game and broke up the Coyotes' best overtime scoring chance, lying flat out to intercept a dangerous two-on-one between Daymond Langkow and Taylor Pyatt. Dating all the way back to the 2010 Olympics, Doughty just finds a way of elevating his game when it matters most.
"We always knew we had something special in here," said Doughty. "It was just a matter of time – of getting used to our linemates and D partners. Right when playoffs started, you could feel the strength the team had, and how good we really were. That first series against Vancouver, we played really good hockey. From there on out, we just used that confidence and all the pressure on us."
Doughty was a warrior last night, but almost cost his team in the OT when he took a penalty for interfering with Ray Whitney. Doughty showed his displeasure with the call by slamming his stick on the ice, on the way to the penalty, a punctuation mark on a stream of vitriol.
"Obviously, the ref's going to make the call how he sees it," said Doughty. "Obviously, he sees it differently than I did. But you just get so upset because you don't want to be that guy that took the penalty in overtime to force a Game 6. I definitely didn't want to be that guy and I didn't like that call.
"Sometimes, you just lose it and you can't control it. I really wish I hadn't done that. I want to apologize to the refs but ... I was upset."
Brown, Kopitar, Doughty and goaltender Jonathan Quick are the central figures on this team and will create a formidable challenge for whichever team emerges from the Eastern Conference. Richards is a vocal supporter of Devils' coach Peter DeBoer, for whom he played in junior. If the Rangers happen to advance, then the coaching match-up is a reprise of 2004, where Sutter can exchange pithy repartee with his New York counterpart, John Tortorella.
Phoenix was L.A.'s Pacific Division rival and there were some heated moments in this series, but nothing that will spill over to the final. Unlike last year, when the Kings played their one-and-only playoff round without Kopitar, their leading offensive threat, they have been remarkably healthy this time around. Sometimes, all the bad karma endured one year completely reverses in the next.
"This is an exciting time for everyone," said Brown. "Maybe tomorrow you think about it a bit more. Right now, the emotions are running high and everyone's real excited. But I think everyone understands, and we've had a few guys that have been through this, that understand where we want to be ultimately."
Taylor Pyatt, Marc-Antoine Pouliot and Keith Yandle scored the goals for a Phoenix team which put up a valiant fight. In their two previous series, the Coyotes always played one game, where it all just clicked for them. Where they didn't need to play rope-a-dope for the better part of 60 minutes and hope Smith kept them in it. Where they didn't just hang around the game, but went right after it and were in it, from start to finish. That game was last night's and it made for a seesaw, relatively high-scoring (by this series standards) outing that was up for grabs until the bitter end.
"It wasn't easy," said centre Jarret Stoll. "We just kept pushing and pushing. We had a lot of chances in overtime. In the big moments in the game, we were pretty good."
For most of the night, the capacity crowd kept chanting "Beat LA," the slogan printed on the white towels handed out to fans before the game. For most of the night, it looked as if they might too. But in the end, the Coyotes went the way of the St. Louis Blues and the Vancouver Canucks, to the sidelines, while in L.A., the beat goes on.
Next stop: New York or New Jersey.