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MIKE PENNER

Run for the Cup Is Fit for Kings

May 16, 1993|MIKE PENNER

LOST ANGELES The City of Angels, and Dodgers, and Clippers, and Raiders, has abandoned all hope of winning a professional sports championship during the remainder of the Clinton Administration.

The Angels, whose antique collection of multimillionaire free agents was appraised to be worthless, have decided to restock with minimum-wage rookies who will be traded just as soon as the Autrys are required to pay them what they are worth.

The Dodgers, knocked senseless by last season's 63-99 finish, have firmly committed themselves to the worthless antique business.

The Rams, who last won a championship when Chuck Knox was a teen-ager, went 6-10 last season and called it "a major turnaround."

The Raiders, whose last playoff appearance was a 51-3 loss to Buffalo 28 months ago, signed Jeff Hostetler, Gaston Green and 37-year-old James Lofton and called it "a major turnaround."

The Lakers, post-Magic, and the Clippers, soon-to-be post-Manning, now make headlines for "pushing" a first-round playoff opponent to five games.

And the Kings? They will be forever known as the designated drivers of the Stanley Cup tournament--two rounds, and then they cut themselves off.

OK, so that was last week.

Now hear this:

The next champions of the National Hockey League will be the same team that, before Thursday night, had no heart, no will, no defense, no goaltending, no tradition and no idea of how it feels to be skating beyond Mother's Day . . . the lost-on-ice, can't-break-the-ice, misnamed-since-birth Kings of Manchester and Prairie, previously known as the Dust Bowl of playoff hockey.

The tumbleweeds that normally blow through town this time of year have been replaced by the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Kings' first-ever final four opponents.

You will note that the Chicago Blackhawks, the winningest team in the Kings' conference, are nowhere to be found.

Same for the Detroit Red Wings, the highest-scoring team in the league.

Same for the Boston Bruins, 109-point champions of the Adams Division.

Same for the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Dynasty of the Millennium that was derailed by a third-place team in the quarterfinals Friday night.

I Am Third --that should be the working title for the NHL's 1993 playoff film. Only four teams are left, and all of them placed third during the regular season--Montreal in the Adams Division, the New York Islanders in the Patrick, Toronto in the Norris and the Kings in the Smythe.

Immediately, this tells us two things:

One, the NHL regular season isn't virtually worthless--it's completely worthless. King Coach Barry Melrose, putting it politely, calls the NHL regular season "nothing but spring training."

Two, now that they're here, any of the four teams still standing is capable of winning it all.

The favorite? On paper, it's Montreal, which plays in the league's toughest division and ended the regular season with 102 points, 14 more than the Kings.

But, since regular-season points can only hurt you in the Stanley Cup playoffs, technically, the Canadiens are long shots. Factor in the rust quotient--because it swept Buffalo, Montreal hasn't played a game in eight days--and the Canadiens have their backs pressed to the wall against the we-believe giant-slayers from Long Island.

But can these Islanders win the Cup?

With Glenn Healy in goal?

In the other conference, Toronto has great goaltending, but not enough goal-scoring. Two-to-one may work in the Norris Division, where teams thrive by playing the puck equivalent of Little Ball, but the Kings win their playoff games by scores of 9-4, 9-6 and 7-4. Felix Potvin has been an ice god for two rounds, but Vancouver's Kirk McLean is one of the league's elite goalies and the Kings pummeled him for 22 goals in their four quarterfinal victories.

Maybe the Maple Leafs are surprised to be here, but the Kings have been hockey's foremost broken promise since Aug. 9, 1988, the day Wayne Gretzky supposedly shifted the balance of power from Alberta to Southern California.

In 1988, Bruce McNall spoke of a "window of opportunity," roughly four to five years, that the addition of Gretzky afforded the Cup-mongering Kings. If they were ever going to win one, they had to win one soon, before Gretzky entered his dotage and began breaking down, piece by piece, backbone connected to the rib bone, rib bone connected to the . . .

Well, the window appeared painted shut by the spring of '91, when the Kings won their only Smythe Division title but failed to follow through in the postseason, allowing a 27-39-4 Minnesota team to reach the finals instead.

If the Kings couldn't do it that year, when would they ever?

Not in '91-'92, when Edmonton blew them out in the first round.

And, seemingly, not in '92-'93, either--not with Gretzky on back rehab for half a season and the Kings in the tank from December through February.

But in April and May, the Kings stumbled upon a crowbar. Having seen his career flash before his eyes, Gretzky has jimmied the window back open, perhaps for the last time, and has approached these playoffs with a passion unseen since his Edmonton days.

Wasn't this the Gretzky guarantee all along? Grace under pressure? Deliverance in sudden death? The league lead in postseason points? White-knuckle trips to the Stanley Cup semifinals and beyond?

At 32 and on painkillers, Gretzky has seen his final championship run, and this is it.

No Mario Lemieux this year.

No Mark Messier.

It's just Gretzky and two more rounds and nothing to hurdle that he hasn't hurdled before.

Back, don't fail him now.

If Gretzky is able to skate out the next four weeks, Los Angeles will have to change its name plate.

By mid-June, it should read: City of Kings.

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