LOS ANGELES | I realize Blackhawks fans might have a tough time with this concept, but before assuming Chicago will roll the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference finals, here are two words to ponder: Jonathan Quick.
Is “Smytheian” a word? If not, let’s invent it. The Kings goaltender won the Conn Smythe Trophy last June, and he has been the best player in this tournament, too. Case closed.
The only blemish on his resume in these playoffs was an embarrassing gaffe in Game 1 of the first round in St. Louis, when he mishandled the puck while trying to clear it and gave up Alexander Steen’s shorthanded overtime goal. But the Kings wouldn’t have made it to OT without Quick’s 40 saves.
He has been spectacular through the six-game triumph over the Blues and a gut-grinding seven-game victory over San Jose, while operating with a margin of error the width of dental floss. The Kings are averaging exactly two goals a game, and 11 of their 13 playoff games have been decided by one goal.
Quick spent the regular season trying to regain his mojo following off-season back surgery. But he’s playing now with a confidence and a swagger that grows with every game. He’s aided by a defensive corps led by Drew Doughty (second in the league in ice time in the playoffs) and bolstered by Matt Greene’s return from injury, the midseason acquisition of Robyn Regehr and the continuing emergence of Slava Voynov.
This is the Kings’ identity: They don’t care about winning pretty or being entertaining, which helps explain their 7-0 home record in the postseason. (Their low-scoring, grinding style doesn’t exactly scare fans away; they have a string of 66 consecutive sellouts at Staples Center.)
They’re big, fast and physical. They’ve averaged 41 hits a game in the playoffs, and they’re willing to keep pounding that rock until it cracks. When it does, Anze Kopitar or Justin Williams or Mike Richards or Jeff Carter — or Voynov, an emerging offensive force from the blue line — will be there to take advantage.
Even in criticizing a style that he considers the return of the Dead Puck Era, Toronto Star columnist Damien Cox expressed some grudging admiration after the Kings’ 2-1 Game 7 victory over San Jose:
“They have the undeniable will of a champion, a roster of hard-edged, uncompromising players, a captivating ability to play well as a selfless group and an ability to dig deep into a well of determination and resolve … The Kings simply tell their opponent this is what we’re going to do, and we’re not going to change.”
It’s a style that has Darryl Sutter’s fingerprints all over it. Remember him?
Oh, and nobody has questioned the heart or leadership of the Kings’ captain, Dustin Brown. Meanwhile, it’s good to see that Jonathan Toews reappeared in time to help wipe out that 3-1 deficit against the Red Wings.
Yes, the Blackhawks have home ice, and the LA team so dominant on the road a year ago is 1-5 in its white sweaters this spring.
But there’s no reason why the Kings can’t steal one in United Center, maybe as early as Saturday, and go on to eliminate a President’s Trophy winner for the second straight year.
Unlike some defending champs we can name, most of this roster remembers how that was accomplished.
Jim Alexander, the lead sports columnist for The Press-Enterprise in Riverside, Calif., has been writing about southern California sports since the 1970s. His Twitter handle: @Jim_Alexander