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Parity – and the Kings from La La land – rule the NHL

Time at last to say farewell to winter, never officially done and gone until they’ve dropped the last puck. To the end it was grueling, both at the rink and away. Three months after the dawn of spring, we finally have resolution. The sporting seasons not only runneth over but smack into one another.

For some of us – weaned on the charms of old- fashioned hockey and the legend of Eddie Shore – the ending is bitter. The notion of La La Land being the de facto capital of ice hockey will never be easily embraced in this space. Hockey in Hollywood has always made as much sense to me as surfing on the St. Lawrence.  

Not that the Kings are lacking in authenticity, let alone worthiness. Drape these lean and snarling characters in black and gold and emblazon a grizzly on their crest and you’d have a team after your own heart, no matter how unreconstructed your allegiance to the myth of the Original Six might be. These Kings play the game as the Bruins ever yearn to, and even succeed, now and again. None of that, however, makes the prospect of their version of the Duck Parade waltzing down Sunset Boulevard any more congruous, let alone palatable.  We need to get over it, I guess.

Until they finally came of age as a franchise at the tender age of 45 it was fun to have the Kings around. For so long, they were such amiable doormats, gifted at scoring while having no idea how to prevent it and even less of a desire to do something about it.  Save for that happy and brief interlude when they had the ghost of Wayne Gretzky to rally around, the Kings were routinely two points ripe for the picking while Los Angeles was always a welcome road trip in the middle of February. No more!

So there nags the question: Would the Bruins have beaten the Kings had they survived the Canadiens? First, Boston would’ve had to deal with New York, of course. No problem there!  When it counts most, the Bruins will always beat the Rangers much as the Canadiens will always beat the Bruins in like circumstances. It’s just the way it works. It’s mystical. Who can explain it? Wise men don’t even try.

In the end, you may have been spared greater indignity. Because with a lucky bounce the Bruins would have taken us to the brink again and there they would have lost, again! They didn’t have to against the Rangers, who didn’t begin to challenge them physically, but these Kings can play the Bruins bruising style, if needs require. And they can do it better.

Two full months of intense Stanley Cup hockey observations verify the conventional wisdom of the alleged experts who, for a change, have it right. The difference between the NHL’s Western and Eastern Conferences is huge. At least four western teams – Kings, Hawks, Ducks, & Blues – would have been favored in a showdown with the east’s regular-season top dog, your Bruins, and two others, the Sharks & Rockies, would have been deemed roughly equals. That’s not to say the Bruins couldn’t have beaten the likes of the Ducks, Blues, or Sharks, only that if they hadn’t it would hardly have been an upset. More to the point, it puts the Bruins much-touted President’s Cup achievements in sharper perspective.

For the record, it has been proven again that the President’s Cup ain’t worth a pitcher of warm spit, as FDR’s first Veep, John Nance Garner, might have said. Better off are the teams that save it for the prom. Like the Kings!

Otherwise, these playoffs attested again to the powerful sway of parity in the NHL.  In the end, the margin of difference is decisive, but it’s also thin. The Kings were clearly the better team in the Finals, yet with a scant twist or two we could be hanging at the moment on the promise of an epic Game Seven.

You can’t win three games in the Finals in overtime, as the Kings did, and not have benefited substantially from the stray, lucky bounce. Moreover, save for two highly questionable penalty calls – the indefensible goalie-interference non-call that cost New York Game Two and the almost as bad tripping call that likely cost them Game Five – the Rangers, however out-gunned,  might actually have won the bloody thing. For what it’s worth, too many on-ice officials did not have a good Stanley Cup.

But the League and the Game sure did. Upwards to a dozen teams legitimately contended. Near every series was madly competitive. Hammerings were few, overtimes plentiful, no more than a razor’s edge of difference between winners and losers. Quirky bounces of the puck, minuscule lapses in judgment, pucks that clanged off the pipes in the middle of the night were monumental factors. Yet none of it altered the inevitability of the team most deserving prevailing. There was nothing cheap about the result, no grounds for complaint. This is parity at its very best. One year after the dumb labor dispute that almost destroyed the league, it was also the NHL at its very best.

There remain memorable the recriminations taking place hereabouts when Montreal eliminated Boston in Round Two. The Bruins got crucified for having failed us. Some of the nastiest criticism came from pundits who may see three or four games a year and might have difficulty distinguishing offside from icing, yet felt confident in concluding it was a lack of moral character that brought the Bruins down. The Canadiens, they felt, had more of it. How very stupid!  

It’s a matter that begs for revised perspective. As it turned out, the Bruins lasted longer than the Blues and Sharks and as long as the Penguins and Ducks while the Hawks and Habs lasted only one round longer. That’s seven teams that had legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations but fell short. All of them, one surmises, can reasonably argue a lack of character had rather less to do with it than a penchant for ringing pucks off the post.

Henrik Lundqvist, the losing Rangers’ elegant Swedish goalie who would have been my choice for MVP, put it best, saying, “In the end, so much of it is out of your control.” In this magnificent crapshoot that is recklessly waged the length and breadth of North America every spring for an old silver bauble you might rather be lucky than good.  Every single time!

They’ll be back soon enough. Pre-season exhibitions are less than three months off. The seasons collide!

In the meantime it’s widely held the Bruins will do little this off season, perhaps only tinker around the edges while getting everyone healthy. The strength they exhibited most of the past season ought not be ignored. But, then, neither should the fact they ultimately faltered.

More than ever, the NHL features two very different seasons, played back to back with nary a pause, yet featuring quite different demands. Is this a team built to withstand the long grind but lacking that extra, higher gear that must be reached when the melodrama inevitably elevates come the playoffs? If so, how do you resolve that dilemma?

It’s a team that in its essential makeup has been together a half dozen seasons. That’s a generation, in sports.  One senses the new boys in charge may be getting antsy. A big move, one even larger than last summer’s blockbuster Seguin for Eriksson and Reilly caper, would not surprise me. They will listen.

Meanwhile, the Kings revel amidst talk of “dynasty.” It’s just talk. We heard the same song and dance about the Blackhawks a year ago and before that there were the Penguins and Red Wings, who at least came close. With its iron grip, parity doesn’t allow for dynasties anymore.

Even greater as a measure of change in the NHL, it seems to me, is the fact there have now been three Stanley Cup champs from Southern California in the last decade, and none from Quebec, Ontario, or any other Canadian province in more than two decades.

What do you think Eddie Shore would have to say about that?