Whenever a professional league or the NCAA considers revamping its postseason structure, a prime goal is to preserve the integrity of the regular season. Major League Baseball recently was caught up in this argument when it decided to expand from one wild-card team to two in each league. The BCS has been bombarded with criticism as it sifts changes to its football postseason, especially in light of Alabama's inability to win the SEC West before it captured the national championship. Makes sense. Why play day after day or week after week for several months only to, in effect, ignore the results?
The answer is simple. We love underdogs. The thrill of watching a team slog through a season, sneak into the playoffs and then catch fire is one of the most uplifting elements of being a sports fan.
The latest examples are the Los Angeles Kings, who barely made the postseason but now are one series from playing for the Stanley Cup. The Kings finished third in the Pacific Division, collecting only 95 points and edging into the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference. But that didn't keep the Kings from a 4-1 upset of the top-seeded Canucks, who had 111 points, and then a sweep of the Blues, who had 109. The stellar play of Jonathan Quick, Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar has helped Los Angeles become the first team to oust a conference's top two seeds since the NHL adopted the current playoff format 19 years ago.
If the Kings can skate all the way to the Stanley Cup, they'll join some elite company. In their own sport, the Devils were seeded only fifth after the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season but got it together at the right time, sweeping the Red Wings for the Cup. In the NFL, the 2005 Steelers and the 2010 Packers nudged into the playoffs as sixth and last seeds yet went on to grab the Lombardi Trophy. The 1993 Marlins finished 10 games behind the Braves in the NL East before shocking the Giants, the Cubs (with Steve Bartman's help) and the Yankees to win the World Series as a wild card. Slightly more obscure but no less remarkable was the 2008 season of the Fresno State baseball team, which did not even climb above .500 until its 25th game but qualified in the bottom quartile of the NCAA field, then came back from a Game 1 loss to stun Georgia for the College World Series championship.
Huge upsets in the playoffs don't happen often, but that makes them even more appealing. So NHL fans will be watching closely to see if this edition of the Kings will become the latest entry among the Lowest Seeds to Win a Championship.