Kings face Knights in battle of underdogs

Ollie Jung | Daily Trojan

Welcome, friends. It’s the best time of the year.

That might sound like a strange thing to say to sports fans when we just finished watching March Madness and the Masters Tournament and are still two weeks away from the NFL Draft. But it’s true: The Stanley Cup Playoffs kicked off on Wednesday, meaning one of the greatest, purest spectacles in the sporting world is now underway.

It’s hard to describe the breakneck pace of playoff hockey — it’s really something you have to witness yourself to fully appreciate. The quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup shifts the sport to a new gear, transforming it into a completely different game for the next two months.

The changes are universal, affecting teams, fans and broadcasters alike. I’ll never forget the unintentional hilarity of commentator Doc Emrick’s constantly cracking voice during triple overtime in Game 1 of the 2013 Finals. And despite Nashville’s loss to Pittsburgh last year, the Predators’ crowd was spellbinding: A choir of nearly 20,000 fans sang in unison at Penguins goalie Matt Murray whenever he conceded a goal, alternating between chants of “Murray! Muuuuuurray! YOU SUCK!” and “IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT! IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT!”

The best part? The atmosphere rubs off on the players. Unlike during the regular season, both teams pursue almost every chipped puck into the offensive zone, and each shot is released with purpose. The hits have an added edge, too. There’s nothing more fun than a playoff line brawl, when tempers boil over and the game devolves into a five-on-five round of fisticuffs.

Fortunately for viewers, this additional speed and intensity also increases the potential for upsets. Los Angeles Kings fans know this better than anyone: Their team lifted the Cup in 2012 as the bottom overall seed in its conference and again in 2014 with the third-worst record out of qualifying teams from the West. Pittsburgh’s back-to-back titles have bucked this trend for the past two seasons, but this year’s championship race appears as open as any in recent memory.

The Kings hope that proves to be true after sneaking into the playoffs as a wild card. At the same time, however, they are looking to avoid getting bulldozed by arguably the biggest Cinderella story in sports — the Vegas Golden Knights.

It may sound like a questionable take after Loyola Chicago just captivated the nation with its journey to the Final Four. But the Knights, who are playing their inaugural season in the NHL, are on an even unlikelier run. Consider this: The Ramblers were the fourth No. 11 seed in NCAA history to reach the national semifinals (the first since VCU in 2011). Vegas, on the other hand, is the first expansion team in the history of professional sports to win its division in its maiden campaign.

In fact, no other team has even debuted with a winning season, let alone the Knights’ sparkling 51-24-7 mark, which was third-best in the Western Conference. Vegas had the sixth overall pick in the entry draft, but hockey prospects rarely make an immediate impact (the franchise’s first-round selection, Cody Glass, is still playing juniors), meaning the roster had to be assembled from NHL benchwarmers during June’s expansion draft. Yet somehow, the Knights enter their first-ever playoff series as the higher seed.

They certainly looked to be the favorite when the Kings visited the T-Mobile Arena to open the series on Wednesday. Going toe-to-toe against a host of former Stanley Cup champions — including 2012 Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jonathan Quick between the pipes — the Knights stood tall to battle to a 1-0 victory.

They leaned on the postseason experience of their own in winger James Neal and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (who were on opposing ends during last year’s Finals), but 22-year-old Shea Theodore provided the game winner, firing a wrist shot that deflected past Quick for the first postseason goal in the Knights’ history. The roof nearly blew off the arena, and it was clear Vegas would be a difficult rink to steal a win at during the playoffs — which L.A. will have to do in order to advance.

But as usual, the Kings have the squad to pull it off and make a run. The roster’s core is made up of two-time Cup winners, and budding stars Adrian Kempe and Tyler Toffoli will be eager to make an impact in their first taste of postseason action. Despite the loss in Game 1, Quick looked sharp, turning away 27 of 28 shots. That bodes well after he struggled in the regular season finale, especially given his postseason track record. The truest cliche in hockey is that you need a hot goaltender to win the Stanley Cup, and if Quick is on his game, there are few stoppers better than him on the planet.

This series is a paradox of sorts. After two unlikely championship runs, the Kings suddenly find themselves looking to bring a premature end to a different underdog story — except technically, they are the underdogs. But given L.A.’s wealth of playoff experience, you’d have to pick it over Vegas, even after the opening game.

Then again, that’s the narrative the Knights have been bucking all season. They are a Cinderella story in the truest sense: Not only are they crashing a party they have no right to attend, but they also look the part in every way. The clock won’t strike midnight on its own. The Kings — or whichever teams come after them — will have to call time.

Ollie Jung is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism. His column, “Jung Money,” runs Fridays.