Gretzky excited by Kings' playoff run
By Brian Compton - NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor
Arguably the greatest to ever play the game, Wayne Gretzky was a member of some pretty good teams over the course of 20 seasons in the National Hockey League.
But the four-time Stanley Cup winner (Edmonton, 1984, '85, '87, '88) admitted that he's stunned by the roll the Los Angeles Kings are on. L.A. is 14-2 this postseason and held a 2-0 series lead on the New Jersey Devils entering Monday's Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final at Staples Center.
"I was thinking about the 70s teams with Guy Lafleur and [Larry] Robinson, the '80 teams with [Mike] Bossy, [Bryan] Trottier, [Denis] Potvin, [Billy] Smith, of course our teams in the '80s and, of course, Mario's [Lemieux] teams in Pittsburgh were tremendous teams," Gretzky said on NHL Live Monday afternoon. "Those teams, you kind of expected them at some point to sort of roll through. But even the Islanders at some point had a seven-game series or won a game in overtime in Game 5 of a deciding series.
"This team, right now, I've never seen anything like it. An eighth-place team, to get on a roll that they're on -- they're definitely right now the best team in the playoffs. They've proven that in the West. They've played two games where they win on the road in the Finals in overtime. They have everything going right now. I honestly have not seen anything like this. But this has been great for the game of hockey and it's great for California of course here in L.A."
New Jersey is coming off difficult back-to-back overtime losses on home ice and will be in desperation mode in Game 3. Gretzky, who tallied 382 points (122 goals, 260 assists) in 208 playoff games, thought the Devils had more jump Saturday night and must find a way to get over the hump Monday if they plan on making this a series.
"I thought that the Kings had the better quality of chances and I thought Brodeur was very, very good," Gretzky said. "I thought Game 2 was much more even. I thought the Devils played better. I think what it comes down to is this is the series. They have to win Game 3. I think we all know that."
Monday marks just the seventh home game for the Kings' this postseason, as their road success allowed them to make quick work of the Vancouver Canucks, St. Louis Blues and Phoenix Coyotes -- the top three seeds in the Western Conference. A large portion of their success is due to Conn Smythe candidate Jonathan Quick, who enters Game 3 with a 1.44 goals-against average and .947 save percentage in the playoffs.
"To say the least, he's been truly phenomenal," Gretzky said of Quick. "You cannot win the Stanley Cup without a great goaltender. You look at guys like [Martin] Brodeur and guys like [Mike] Richter, Grant Fuhr, Billy Smith, guys like Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy … you just have to have a good goalie because the teams are so even.
"One of the things the NHL tried to do after the lockout was bring some parity to the game, and I think the Commissioner's office has done a great job. We had a team two years ago who finished eighth and went to the Finals. We have a team in eighth and a team in sixth in the Stanley Cup Finals. So if you get there, you have a great chance to win. But there's no question Quick has been the difference for this team throughout the four rounds so far. He's been outstanding."
So has defenseman Drew Doughty, whose play in the second half of the season has carried over into the playoffs. Doughty, who scored a gorgeous end-to-end goal in Game 2, is a plus-12 in 16 postseason contests and has four points (2 goals, 2 assists) in his last three games.
"His upside is so phenomenal," Gretzky said. "He's a special young man. When you get a player that can skate with that ability, the physical toughness that he has and the presence of mind to make plays offensively, you're getting the whole package. Those kind of guys are really difficult to find. Drew has been a huge part of the success of this team in the playoffs."
While the Kings' power play has struggled, their penalty kill has been fantastic. Darryl Sutter's PK unit is currently clicking at 92. 1 percent and has scored five shorthanded goals. Gretzky attributes that to Sutter's day with Mike Keenan, when the pair worked behind the Chicago Blackhawks' bench two decades ago.
"One of the first times I saw this kind of penalty-killing was Mike Keenan in the late '80s and the early '90s," Gretzky said. "Mike Keenan's strategy was you make good players, force them to make plays. If you give good players time and you let them be comfortable, they're going to find open men. Obviously, Darryl and Mike worked a lot together and he's incorporated that. He has his players being very aggressive all over the ice. They're taking away the passing lanes and they're making it hard for New Jersey to enter their zone to get set up."
Gretzky put hockey on the map in Southern California when he was traded from Edmonton to Los Angeles in the summer of 1988. The Great Western Forum because a hockey hotbed and was rocking when the Kings reached the 1993 Stanley Cup Final before falling to the Montreal Canadiens. Nineteen years later, Los Angeles is back in the Final, albeit in an updated facility.
"I loved it because all the fans were so intimate and so close to the players -- it was like the old Buffalo Auditorium or the old Chicago Stadium," Gretzky said of the Forum. "It really had something cool about it. I mean, [Staples Center] is beautiful and they had to make a change. That's evolution. But it was a beautiful arena to play hockey in. I loved it and truly enjoyed every minute."
Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL