x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

When it comes to fans the Los Angeles Kings have mostly been paupers

The NHL team has rarely made a pulse beat fast in Tinseltown, a place that is crazy for the NBA and baseball.

Los Angeles Kings' Jeff Carter, top right, celebrates with teammate Matt Greene after scoring the game-winning goal against the New Jersey Devils during the overtime period of Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals.
Los Angeles Kings' Jeff Carter, top right, celebrates with teammate Matt Greene after scoring the game-winning goal against the New Jersey Devils during the overtime period of Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals.

Since 1967, the Los Angeles Kings have played in America's second-largest city.

Not that anyone living there ever really noticed.

The franchise had been prominent in the National Hockey League's continental overreach, 45 years ago, when the Original Six doubled their numbers and jumped from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean in one fell, ill-advised swoop.

LA had demonstrated no particular desire for a hockey club, and when they got one they paid it little heed, preferring to shower their love and money on the baseball Dodgers and the basketball Lakers.

Jack Kent Cooke, the Kings' first owner, and a Canadian, rued the club's poor attendance in a region said to include 300,000 Canadian expatriates.

"Now I know why they left Canada," he said. "They hate hockey."

They may just have hated the hockey the Kings played. The club was a serial loser for decades; not until the arrival of Wayne Gretzky, in 1988, did they carry the slightest of expectations, and in 1993 they reached their first Stanley Cup finals. Alas, they lost to the Montreal Canadiens in five games.

A Kings fan, if you can find one, can tell you about a sad, series-turning incident involving Marty McSorley and an illegally curved stick.

The Kings faded from sight again. Bankruptcy came in 1995, and they failed to make the seemingly all-inclusive NHL play-offs 11 times in 15 seasons. Their status as an LA sports institution was so badly eroded that few Angelenos grasped their leading role in the building of the Staples Center, the glittering sports palace near LA's downtown.

The Anschutz Group, owner of the Kings, was the driving force behind the arena's opening, in 1999, but the LA public has always considered it the home principally of the Lakers, with the basketball Clippers the "other" tenant and leaving the Kings as the "other-other" team in their own building.

All of which is a preamble for one of the most startling developments in the history of hockey and, indeed, Los Angeles sports: the Kings' status as NHL champions in waiting after winning the first two games of the Stanley Cup finals.

Consecutive 2-1 overtime victories over the New Jersey Devils, ahead of Monday's game at Los Angeles, left the Kings 120 minutes from a championship that not even their handful of devoted fans saw coming.

The club had been a vaguely trendy dark-horse pick back in September, but they won only 13 of their first 29 games, and on December 12 they fired their coach, Terry Murray.

Another season of mediocrity or worse seemed certain.

They improved slightly under the taciturn Darryl Sutter, but the profile established in their early months stuck with them: soft, a bit lazy, inept in the power play and impotent in the attack. Only one club in the 30-team league scored fewer goals than their 194.

When they staggered to the wire with the last play-off berth in the Western Conference, an early exit seemed in the offing.

But as often happens in the NHL play-offs (though never previously to the Kings), the team were transformed once the puck dropped in the post-season. They took down the top-seeded Vancouver Canucks in five games, swept the second-seeded St Louis Blues and dismissed the third-seeded Phoenix Coyotes in five.

In the NHL the champions of the East are de facto favourites to win the Stanley Cup finals, and that would be the Devils, but the Kings went into Jersey and won twice in the crucible of overtime, keeping alive a remarkable streak: they are unbeaten on the road this spring, a perfect 10-0.

How did underachievers become 2012 play-offs stalwarts? Mostly, in the usual way: with a hot goalkeeper, Jonathan Quick, who has, as the quaint NHL expression goes, often "stood on his head" while stifling more-heralded opponents.

Dustin Brown, the captain, has provided gritty leadership, and several players considered bad apples (Jeff Carter, Mike Richards) or slugs (Dustin Penner) have recovered their previous form and helped the prolific Anze Kopitar create a productive attack.

It would be a romantic exaggeration to suggest LA suddenly has become enamoured of their hockey club; most of the players could walk down Sunset Boulevard in skates and full uniform and go unrecognised.

And too many hockey fans continue to believe the Kings will find some way to screw this up.

Certainly, it would be grand if the Kings could hang a championship banner in Staples. A trained eye might be needed to locate it, among all the Lakers' memorials, but The House the Kings Built ought to carry some proof that they do, in fact, play there.

They would have one more championship than the Clippers, anyway.

poberjuerge@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE

How did underachievers become 2012 play-offs stalwarts?

Mostly, in the usual way: with a hot goalkeeper, Jonathan Quick, who has, as the quaint NHL expression goes, often “stood on his head” while stifling more-heralded opponents. Dustin Brown, the captain, has provided gritty leadership, and several players considered bad apples (Jeff Carter, Mike Richards) or slugs (Dustin Penner) have recovered their previous form and helped the prolific Anze Kopitar create a productive attack.

It would be a romantic exaggeration to suggest LA suddenly has become enamoured of their hockey club; most of the players could walk down Sunset Boulevard in skates and full uniform and go unrecognised. And too many hockey fans continue to believe the Kings will find some way to screw this up.

Certainly, it would be grand if the Kings could hang a championship banner in Staples.

A trained eye might be needed to locate it, among all the Lakers’ memorials, but The House the Kings Built ought to carry some proof that they do, in fact, play there.

They would have one more championship than the Clippers, anyway.

poberjuerge@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE