This month, we asked our writers to revisit their most indelible memories of 2012.
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In the hockey world, 2012 will be remembered, it now seems, as the year the NHL cemented its reputation as an adolescent's unfunny joke of a business. We're four days away from New Year's Day, when the Winter Classic, normally America's reminder that hockey exists, is supposed to take place. But the Winter Classic, like every other hockey game scheduled since June, has been cancelled because of the lockout. Many observers uh, myself included figured the league would never miss a high-profile appointment like that, but our optimism mortifies in hindsight. The league is absolutely going to miss that appointment, and many others. All games are canceled through Jan. 14 now. It appears as though the league will soon miss its second full year in less than a decade, which basically turns the NHL schedule from an annual occurrence into an almost-annual northeastern peculiarity, like when Dave Matthews Band goes on tour. Huh. They're doing it again this year. Cool, I guess. Surprised they have enough of an audience to schedule it so often.
This is a great disappointment, and not just for the usual sports-lockout reasons -- layoffs, irritated fans, the public toleration of management's decision to blame its own problems on labor -- but also because the 2011-12 season ended with a playoff triumph that testified so well to what the NHL can do when it's at its best. The Los Angeles Kings came from the sport's lowest ranks and thrashed the teams above them, simply because they pressed harder than their opponents. The Kings offered us that gift unique to contact sports, hockey especially, where a team's strategy exactly matches the identity-related clichés that might describe it. In bland coach-speak, the Kings were tough and aggressive. In terms of hockey strategy -- what did they do that made them so much better than their opponents? -- the Kings were tough and aggressive.
Other sports pride themselves on playoff parity, but the NHL has it in a flavor its peers can only dream about. The NBA's early rounds are protracted executions, where the top seeds almost always win. The playoffs get good only in the later rounds. MLB has parity in its playoffs, but it's discordant parity: The playoffs are random, necessarily too-short exhibitions that say little about the true quality of the involved teams. The NFL has playoff parity, but, cripes, the whole enterprise is an exercise in parity gone wild. Every team is the best team in the league but also the worst team. It's just chaos. But the NHL's playoffs function as a second season, where the best team gradually demonstrates its superiority. Lower seeds have a real chance to win -- the gap between hockey's best teams and its worst is fairly small -- but they have to earn their wins, in best-of-seven series.
When mid-April, and the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, rolled around, the Kings sat as the eighth seed in the Western Conference. They had disappointed during the season but made the playoffs, just barely. In the first round, they would have to face the league's best team, the Vancouver Canucks, who nearly won the 2011 Cup before dropping Games 6 and 7 at home. The tale of the tape offered some contrast: The Canucks had had the same coach since 2006; the Kings had three different coaches during the year. Los Angeles was last among playoff teams—and second to last overall—in regular-season scoring; Vancouver was first. The Kings could prevent goals, sure, but the Canucks could do that too. Los Angeles had allowed 19 fewer goals than Vancouver, but Vancouver had scored 55 more goals than Los Angeles. NHL playoff battles are generally close, but this one, well, it might not be.
And it wasn't. The bottom-seeded Kings -- yes, the Kings -- threw the President's Trophy-winning Canucks in the woodchipper. They won the first two games by two goals each, in Vancouver, before finishing the series off in five. The same thing happened against St. Louis in the second round. The Kings won the first two games in St. Louis, by two and three goals, and then they clinched the sweep at home. Against Phoenix, they won two more opening games on the road, won one and lost one at home. Then they closed out the Coyotes in Glendale. And so the one, two and three seeds were tidily vanquished. The Kings did it all in 14 games, without a single road loss. Before too long, L.A. had a finals opponent -- the New Jersey Devils -- and, soon enough, the Devils too had been beheaded by the Kings. At least New Jersey, unlike the teams that came before it, stretched the Kings to six games and won a game at home.
I summarize the playoffs' actual game action so quickly because the Kings' playoffs had a structure unlike any other in recent memory. The average Cup run works like a symphony, with significant swells, pianissimo valleys, tempo variations and leitmotifs. There are moments when a team will look unstoppable, but there are also moments when a team looks particularly vulnerable. There are recurrent heroes and goats. The Kings' ascension wasn't like that. They blew their opponents off the ice from the first whistle in the first game of the first series. They led every series 3-0. The narrative drama of the postseason changed. We didn't wonder whether the Kings would pull off their title. Instead, we marveled at how they were doing what they were doing.
So how did they do it, anyway? I wrote about it at Deadspin in June: The Kings' forwards forechecked harder than any of their opponents. Coach Darryl Sutter -- who took an even-less-talented Calgary Flames team to the finals in 2004, also beating the West's first, second and third seeds -- turned every King into a dump-and-chase attacker. Two forwards were driving defensemen back every time the puck was in the zone. They hit, they forced turnovers, they scored shorthanded. Watching on TV, I struggled distinguishing the Kings' lines from one another: They were all young and fast and strong, playing the same bruising, attacking style. Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown, both physical scoring forwards who killed penalties, led the way. Drew Doughty, the 22-year-old defenseman with incredible stick skills, supported them with more aggressiveness. But Los Angeles's superlative goalie, Jonathan Quick, took a lot of the risk out of this otherwise risky style. He stayed low to the ground and stopped everything. And Los Angeles couldn't lose.
The complaint offered about the NHL roughly around the time of the last lockout, usually immediately before or after a mention of the New Jersey Devils, was that the NHL's officiating and its style of play neutralized exceptional offensive talent. Hulking defensemen could use their sticks to make gifted forwards ordinary. One might be tempted to say that the Kings' forwards did the same thing to opposing defensemen. But the Kings needed every bit of their talent to do what they did. Slower skaters or softer checkers -- forwards in the finesse, spindly mold of Los Angeles's Jeff Carter, who was mostly superfluous during the playoff run --couldn't have pulled it off. But this was Sutter's triumph: He made the team's especially talented players seemingly forget they were especially talented. He made them do things (dump, chase, hit) that especially talented players don't usually do.
The Kings' on-ice effort made them easy to root for, as did much of what they did off the ice. In 2009, when the Los Angeles Daily News told its veteran Kings beat writer, Rich Hammond, that the paper couldn't afford to send him on road trips, the Kings hired him to write for their website and gave him full editorial independence. That wasn't all they did online: Their peppy Twitter account routinely teased the teams they beat, adding a new dimension for fans to follow. Those of us who spend far too much of our time on the Internet admire what L.A. has done.
It's fitting, if unpleasant, that a smart organization with a chance to grow its fan base and defend its title -- all the important pieces of Los Angeles's still-young roster remain under contract -- has to remain in mothballs for 2012-13 because the league's wealthiest and poorest owners couldn't figure out how to share record revenues and blamed the players instead. Hockey's indelible 2012 memory was once going to be an only-in-the-NHL-playoffs underdog's triumph; now it'll be an only-in-the-NHL economic disaster. It has to be that way, but I wish it didn't.