In January, in advance of his first-ever appearance in an NHL all-star game, Los Angeles Kings' goaltender Jonathan Quick told a charming anecdote about the Boston Bruins' Tim Thomas, and how Thomas influenced his game back when he was still a college player at the University of Massachusetts.
Quick played two years for UMass and while there weren't a lot of television viewing options in the dorm, they did get NESN, the Boston cable network, just as Thomas turned up in Boston – a reclamation project from the Finnish league, who was in the process of unexpectedly nailing down the starting job. Thomas went on to win multiple Vézina trophies and last year, also won the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP in the Bruins' stirring, come-from-behind victory over the Vancouver Canucks.
Ironic, then, that Quick is poised to follow in the footsteps of the goalie who influenced him as a collegian and shares that his deep-rooted competitive fires.
The Kings are one win away from a most improbable Stanley Cup victory, in the midst of a 15-2 playoff run, and with a chance to win the Stanley Cup on Wednesday night in the fewest number of games since the Edmonton Oilers went 16-2 with a team of future Hall Of Famers back in 1988.
The Kings have four candidates for the Conn Smythe – Quick, defenceman Drew Doughty, centre Anze Kopitar and captain Dustin Brown. But in the Stanley Cup final, where these things are generally decided, Quick has edged to the front of the line. In the first three games against the New Jersey Devils Quick has stopped 70 of 72 shots. His goals-against average overall is a minuscule 1.32, his save percentage an extraordinary .950. He is outplaying his opposite number, Martin Brodeur, who is considered one of the greatest goaltenders in NHL history.
Sometimes, a player facing that sort of heightened pressure and scrutiny can fall flat on his face, but instead, Quick has raised the level of his game. On Tuesday, Quick acknowledged a few jitters before the opening game against the Devils last weekend: "Your mind is racing a little bit, you're thinking too much. I think that's natural. After that, though, it's back to your normal routine, just doing what you can to prepare for a game."
Quick gave a rare glimpse into his private self yesterday. Under heavy questioning from reporters, he finally revealed that he had a poster of Mike Richter on his bedroom wall and cheered for the New York Rangers in the 1994 Stanley Cup final against the Vancouver Canucks.
"I just think I was more nervous back then than I am right now for the games," Quick said. "Obviously you watch all the games throughout the playoffs there. I think the save in Game 6 that Richter made on Pavel Bure was more than anything that happened in Game 7. I was really excited for them to win."
Part of coach Darryl Sutter's motivational strategy is to keep all his players grounded. As a result, Sutter will often refuse to play along with all the gushing hyperbole that so often bubbles to the surface at this time of year.
So when Sutter was asked if he'd ever seen anything quite like Quick's performance in these playoffs, he had a ready answer: "Yeah, Miikka Kiprusoff [for Calgary, in 2004]."
Unbelieving reporter: "In the final?"
Sutter: "Yes. Miikka. Do the math. Seven games. 14-13, goals-for, goals-against, seven-game series. Pretty incredible."
Likely Quick's strongest challenger right now is Kopitar, another player who is forging a new and improved identity in these playoffs, and in this final. As recently as three years ago, Kopitar was challenging for an NHL scoring title for a couple of months and looked ready to join the NHL's elite players.
But his development stalled, it appeared, and he was having just a so-so season by February when Sutter, after all of two months on the job, ventured that Kopitar's play had become stale. There was some question as to whether Kopitar could be the true No. 1 centre that every team believes it needs to win a Stanley Cup. In June, after ramping it up down the stretch and playing smart hockey at both ends of the ice, it appears as though he's delivered the answer. Yes, he is.
YouTube is full of scenes of Slovenian hockey fans watching the Stanley Cup playoffs in the middle of the night, enthralled by the local hero. Kopitar says he's aware of them, but trying not to pay too much attention, for fear of getting distracted from the task at hand.
Two months ago, heading into the playoffs, the Kings were a team of maybes and possibilities. Since then, after making short work of every team that crossed their path, they have really left only two questions unanswered: Not if they'll win the Stanley Cup, but when; and then who, among this deep and balanced team will be chosen most valuable of all.