Why Kings vs. Oilers is one of the NHL's truly great rivalries

Ted Donato was born in Boston and played nine of his 13 NHL seasons with the Bruins, so he was raised to see the Bruins-Canadiens playoff series as a rite of spring, one just as iconic — and almost as frequent — as the Boston Marathon or opening day at Fenway Park.

The two teams have met 34 times in the postseason, making it the most common matchup in NHL playoff history. But that familiarity has hardly bred contempt.

“I loved it,” said Donato, who had three goals and four assists in 13 playoff appearances against Montreal. “For someone who grew up as a fan, those were the games that you always looked forward to.”

The Oilers and Kings have also become regular partners on the Stanley Cup playoff calendar. When they face off Monday in Edmonton, it will mark the 10th time they’ve met in the playoffs and the third time in as many seasons. And while that series has a long way to go to match the history of Montreal-Boston, the rivalry has already built a passion all its own — especially since Edmonton has eliminated the Kings the last five times they’ve met, including the last two seasons.

“There’s a redemption. You want to redeem yourself,” said Kings broadcaster Jim Fox, who played in three playoff series against the Oilers. “I’m sure there’s guys in the room — I would assume there’s guys in the room — that want to beat Edmonton because they’ve lost two years in a row.

“That doesn’t mean they want to play Edmonton. It means they want to beat Edmonton. It’s not a preference to play them. It’s a desire that they want to prove that they can do it.”

Because they haven’t done it very often.

Including playoffs, the Kings and Oilers have met 25 times in the last three seasons — no two teams have played as often — with the Kings winning only nine of those games.

So would the Kings, who haven’t won a first-round playoff series against any team since 2014 and haven’t won a series with Edmonton since 1989, Wayne Gretzky’s first season in Los Angeles, have been better off opening the postseason somewhere else?

“It’s a great question,” said Fox, who was part of the “Miracle on Manchester” Kings team in 1982 that defeated a heavily favored Oilers squad during Gretzky’s 212-point season. “Do you want something new? I haven’t polled the players but I assume more of them would say we need a chance again to beat Edmonton as opposed to let’s try something new.”

But if the playoff history with the Oilers isn’t exactly reassuring, there are some similarities between this Kings team and the franchise’s first Stanley Cup champion in 2012 that are far more encouraging.

That team changed coaches midway through the season, with Darryl Sutter replacing Terry Murray. That happened this winter as well, when interim coach Jim Hiller took over for Todd McLellan.

The 2011-12 Kings won nine of their last 15 games to finish third in the Pacific Division; this season’s team won 10 of its last 15 to finish third in the Pacific Division. That team had been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs the two previous seasons; this team was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs the two previous seasons.

That team had a top line centered by Anze Kopitar and a blue line that featured Drew Doughty; this team still has a top line centered by Anze Kopitar and a defense corps led by Drew Doughty.

“Every year is different. But I like the way we play,” said team president Luc Robitaille, who lost four playoff series to the Oilers when he played for the Kings. “We don’t give up much. We’re comfortable playing a 2-1 game. And that’s the way we were back then too.”

If there’s a major difference between this season’s Kings and their first Cup-winning squad, it’s in goal. The 2012 team had Jonathan Quick who, at 27, was arguably in his prime and could dominate a series. This season’s team has journeyman Cam Talbot, 36, who has played for six teams in as many seasons.

But then the playoffs don’t always reward the best team, they can reward the hottest one. Last year, the Bruins set NHL records for most wins (65) and most points (135) in a season, only to be bounced by Florida in the first round. The Detroit Red Wings suffered a similar fate in 1995-96, winning 62 games before losing in the conference final.

Then there was the 2018-19 St. Louis Blues, who had the worst record in the league on Jan. 3. Six months later they hoisted the Stanley Cup for the first time.

“We bought a ticket to the playoffs and you never know what can happen,” said Kopitar, who has never beaten the Oilers in the playoffs. “It’s a brand-new slate, a brand-new sheet of paper. You’ve got to be on top of your game and make sure that you’re prepared, the team is prepared.

“Whatever’s on the other side of the ice, that’s what it is. If you want to go all the way, you’ve got to beat a lot of good teams.”

And sometimes you just have to wait your turn. The Bruins once lost 18 straight playoff series to the Canadiens before ending the drought in 1988 en route to the Stanley Cup Final. Donato said that did little to detract from the matchup; if anything, it made victory that much sweeter.

“To be able to be part of the Bruins-Canadiens series was really one of the great memories I have,” said Donato, who stayed in Boston to build another career as the coach at Harvard, taking the Crimson to the NCAA Frozen Four in 2017. “There’s certainly something to be said for the history and tradition and the rivalries you see time and again.”

The Kings and Oilers are one of those rivalries, he said.

“There’s something to be said for the familiarity,” he continued. “With L.A. and Edmonton, and all the great players involved and the great teams that L.A.’s had over the last 25 years, I think it’s great for hockey.”

Ask the Kings and they’ll tell you it will be even greater if they win this time.

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