Prior to this season, no team had ever beaten the #1 and #2 seeds in the first two rounds of the NHL Playoffs. The Los Angeles Kings accomplished this feat, eliminating the Vancouver Canucks and St. Louis Blues, while also knocking off the #3 Phoenix Coyotes for the Western Conference title for good measure. If they go on to beat the New Jersey Devils to win the Stanley Cup, they will become the first #8 seed to do so.
Are the Kings the best underdog in the history of the NHL? Only if you consider them to be underdogs.
Much is made of the so-called "second season" in the NHL. The logic being that if you can just get into the playoffs, everything resets to a 0-0 record and anything can happen. Yet, history shows us that very few teams actually go on to capitalize on that opportunity.
Under the current playoff structure, two conferences with three division champions and five at-large "wild card" teams each, which has been in place since the 1998-99 season, only one #8 seed (#5 wild card) has made it as far as the Stanley Cup Finals. That was the Edmonton Oliers in 2006. They went as far as you can go without winning it all, losing to the Carolina Hurricanes in seven games. During that time, only three #7 seeds made it to the Finals: the '99 Buffalo Sabres, the '03 Anaheim Mighty Ducks and the '10 Philadelphia Flyers. All fell short of winning the Cup. The lowest seeds to win it all since 1999 were a pair of #4s (the #1 wild cards), the '00 New Jersey Devils and the '09 Pittsburgh Penguins.
Of course, the NHL has been around a long time and has been sending 16 teams to the postseason since the 1979-80 season. In 1994, the #7 Canucks made it to the Finals before falling to the New York Rangers.
Some other historic NHL underdogs:
- The '82 Canucks posted a regular season record of 30-33-17 but qualified for the playoffs, and made it to the Finals before being swept by the New York Islanders
- The '91 Minnesota North Stars followed a similar path, amassing a mere 68 points with a regular season record of 27-39-14 but got all the way to the Finals before succumbing to the Penguins in six games.
- In only their third season, the '96 Florida Panthers played the underdog role all season. They fell short of winning a division but their 41-31-10 record was good enough for a #4 seed, which they carried into the Finals before being swept by the Colorado Avalanche.
Based on this history, it could be argued that these #8 Kings already merit discussion as the greatest underdog in NHL history, and that a Cup victory would cinch it. Maybe, but that might depend on how you define "underdog".
In spite of their low seed, the Kings are not exactly a ragtag, bargain-basement band of misfits and outcasts who have come out of nowhere to defy the odds. As Raw Charge Managing Editor John Fontana points out, "In the popular sense of the term, the Kings aren't really underdogs. They under-performed in the regular season in a very tight and competitive conference. Or, one can dress down the entire league this season and say that the Kings were a minion of parity - part of the mediocrity that was prevalent during the regular season in 2011-12."
Indeed, the Kings boast a talented roster with Jeff Carter, Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Dustin Penner, Mike Richards, Justin Williams and Jonathan Quick. This group finished 40-27-15, notching 95 points which would have qualified for the #6 slot in the Eastern Conference. Three more points is all that separated them from the Pacific Division title and the #3 seed.
Still, they came into this postseason as the #8 seed which means they will have not had the benefit of home ice advantage in any series. Not that they've suffered as a result. They're a remarkable 8-0 on the road, suffering their only two losses so far at home. They dispatched Vancouver in five games, St. Louis in four and Phoenix in five. All this on behalf of a franchise that had won a grand total of one division and one conference title since entering the league for the 1967-68 season.
So whether or not you consider them a true underdog, the Kings are on the brink of making history. They haven't taken the easy route, even if they've made it look that way.