Originally posted on Fox Sports West  |  Last updated 5/8/12
There may be a Cinderella team or two left in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings aren't one of them. The surprise in the Kings' improbable if not completely unexpected run isn't that they beat first-seeded Vancouver and second-seeded St. Louis. Los Angeles was a combined 5-3 in the regular season against the two teams that combined for 220 points. It's the manner in which they beat the Canucks and Blues that's surprising. The Kings became the first team since the 2008 Pittsburgh Penguins to win its first two playoff series in as few as nine games. They trailed in the St. Louis series for all of seven minutes and 42 seconds. Any shock expressed at Los Angeles' current standing came from the outside looking in. Within the dressing room, this is exactly where the Kings expected to be when training camp opened in September. "I think that maybe in the media, maybe that's the way it is," Dustin Penner said after the Vancouver series of those who did not foresee a Los Angeles run. "But I think all the other teams that we faced during the year knew that we were a good team and probably aren't surprised at the result." This divine right of L.A. Kings prevailed even during the darker days of the 2011-12 season. Following a 2-1 home loss to Dallas on December 10 that served as Terry Murray's final game as head coach, there was still that belief and expectation that a good mix of hockey players was capable of so much more than simply scuffling for a playoff spot. "I like to think - and I truly believe - that the answer is in here," defenseman and former Stanley Cup winner Rob Scuderi said at the time. "I'm very, very optimistic that we are going to come out of this." The only thing truly unexpected was the manner in which the Kings qualified for the third round of the playoffs. When youth was exchanged for the ultracompetitive Mike Richards over the summer, and when Drew Doughty's weighty contract demands were met, it seemed as though the theme heading into the season was that the pieces were there for a Stanley Cup run. The team's salary, nudged up against the cap, insinuated what the team's ambitions were in the spring of 2012. "I'm so excited to be back," Doughty said on September 30, fewer than 24 hours after signing his eight-year, 56-million dollar contract extension. "We have a great team this year. I'm really looking forward to the season. I think this is the year we can do it." A real shock likely came on February 24, when Los Angeles found itself in a "what the hell are we doing here" quagmire, two points out of a playoff spot and in a three-way tie for ninth in the conference. Through the offensive openings created by Jeff Carter's presence, and while showing a preview of the hard, quick, diligent forecheck that has been a staple of their play in the postseason, the Kings worked their way back into the playoff mix during the most daunting portion of their schedule. Their season-long six game winning streak from March 11 22 came at the expense of Chicago, Detroit, Anaheim, Nashville, San Jose and St. Louis. Bookended by a difficult loss in Detroit and a home loss to Boston in which they peppered Tim Thomas with 42 shots, Los Angeles was clearly playing its best hockey late in the season. Over their final 21 games, they outscored their opponents by a full goal. Dustin Brown referenced this stretch against quality competition as the moment he began to notice the team's turnaround. But due to the difficulty of making up ground in the Western Conference and a shootout loss here, a Ryane Clowe stick there a 1-0-3 record in the season's final four games meant that for the second consecutive year the team fell into playoff seeding instead of surging into it. "I think our belief system has been there the whole year," Brown said prior to Sunday's 3-1 win. Their third round opponents have more of a Cinderella vibe. The Phoenix Coyotes, who relied on newcomer Mike Smith to provide an unforeseen improvement of minutes in net from the entirely serviceable Ilya Bryzgalov, is more of an unexpected conference finals entrant. Never mind their third seeding Dave Tippett's bunch banked on 77 points from 39-year old Ray Whitney and a breakthrough season by 20-year old power play specialist Oliver Ekman-Larsson. With 35 goals in 77 games, Radim Vrbata bested his previous career high by eight goals. Of all remaining playoff teams, the Coyotes have the widest discrepancy between consensus preseason expectations and the level at which they're currently playing. After opening the postseason as 201 favorites to win the Stanley Cup, there are Las Vegas betting services now listing the Kings as Cup favorites. Since the switch to a one-versus-eight conference format in 1994, only one previous Stanley Cup winner was seeded outside of the top four. Los Angeles is attempting to emulate the efforts of the 1995 New Jersey Devils, who started on the road in each of their four series en route to sweeping Detroit in the finals. "We knew, all along, we had this team in here to do it," Doughty said after the team eliminated St. Louis with a 3-1 win on Sunday. "Right now, we're playing with a ton of confidence. Every single guy is feeling a part of the team, and that's exactly what you need in the playoffs.'' Brown added the historical marker. "We don't want to be known as the only other Kings team to make it past the second round, though," he said.
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