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Penning a Royal Connection between Pittsburgh and LA

by Jesse Cohen @KingsMenPodcast /

The LA Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins share their 50th Anniversary as members of the 1967 NHL Expansion, but the two teams have much more in common than that.

Los Angeles and Pittsburgh's five decades in the NHL have taken similar twists and turns. Though they may not be natural rivals based on geography or league alignment, they have matched each other in many historical aspects.

Original Color Schemes

The league's Original Six franchises featured three teams that wore red, two teams that wore blue and one that wore black. Expansion ushered in not only new cities and new players, but new color schemes as well.

While teams like St. Louis and Philadelphia have kept their original 1967 color schemes, both Pittsburgh and Los Angeles traded in their colorful expansion palettes in the 1980s.

With the Steelers and Pirates winning Super Bowl and World Series titles for Pittsburgh in 1979, The Penguins adopted the familiar "Black and Gold" in 1980.

The Boston Bruins protested on the grounds that they were uniquely equated with those colors, but were ultimately overruled thanks to the defunct Pittsburgh Pirates hockey team of the late 1920s having previously worn them.

Later in the decade, the Kings would switch from their famous "Forum Blue and Gold" to black and silver.

While the change coincided with the acquisition of Wayne Gretzky, and seemed to be modeled after the popular Los Angeles Raiders uniforms, the truth is that the new Kings jerseys were actually inspired by the QMJHL's Hull Olympiques where Luc Robitaille played his junior hockey career.

Seeing the financial success created by switching to black uniforms, the trend swept through the NHL in the following decades, with over a dozen NHL teams wearing black as their primary or third jerseys over the past 20 years.

Transcendent Centers

The 1980s saw the Kings and the Penguins change their looks, and their fortunes as well.

Both teams had flirted with playoff success and had their share of Hall-of-Fame players over the years, but it wasn't until Wayne Gretzky (1988-89) and Mario Lemieux (1984-85) debuted for each team that they finally reached true contender status.

Arguably the two best centers to ever play the game, Gretzky and Lemieux changed the landscape of the hockey world figuratively and literally.

Their reign saw the league expand into new cities, new media markets and new financial territory.

Gretzky made the Kings instant contenders and the talk of the town during his first five seasons in LA, culminating in a run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1993.

While he never reached the statistical highs he did with the Oilers, he still managed to win the Hart Trophy as the league's Most Valuable Player in 1988-89 and captured the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's leading scorer three times (1989-90, 1990-91 and 1993-94).

His 94 playoff points still ranks first in Kings history and his 40 points in 24 games during the 1993 Cup run remains the best performance by a Kings player by a wide margin (Anze Kopitar's 26 points in 2014 ranks second in club history).

The 1993 Conference Finals between the Kings and Toronto Maple Leafs is widely regarded as one of the best Conference Finals in history.

Even Gretzky himself described Game 7 against the Maple Leafs as the finest game of his career.

The Great One, two and three vs Maple Leafs

The Kings amazing run in 1993 would ultimately fall short as the the Montreal Canadiens took home the Stanley Cup.

Meanwhile in Pittsburgh, Lemieux and the Penguins won back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships the previous two seasons.

Along with Hall-of-Famer Ron Francis and the seemingly never-aging Jaromir Jagr, Lemieux led the Penguins to dominating wins over the Minnesota North Stars and Chicago Blackhawks. He captured the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP both seasons.

Tragically, Lemieux's career was plagued by injury and a battle with cancer which forced him to retire at the age of 31 in 1997.

And while he was able to return to the NHL in 2000, the missed time had stunted his legendary career and his chance at matching Gretzky in statistical dominance.

Mario Lemieux's Comeback from Cancer

Return to Greatness

Even with a diminished Lemieux, the Penguins reached the Conference Finals again in 1996 and 2001. Lemieux would struggle to remain healthy and the Pens ultimately missed the playoffs in four straight seasons beginning in 2002.

In Los Angeles, the Kings struggled after their 1993 Cup Final appearance and wound up trading Wayne Gretzky to St. Louis in 1996. In the 15 seasons following their loss in the Stanley Cup Final, the Kings only qualified for the playoffs 4 times (1998, 2000-02).

The 2005 NHL Entry Draft was a crucial moment in the revitalization of both franchises.

Following the lockout season of 2004-05, the NHL instituted a weighted lottery to determine the draft order.

The Penguins wound up with the first overall pick and selected phenom Sidney Crosby. The Kings wound up with the 11th overall pick and speculation over who they would select ranged from forward Martin Hanzal to netminder Carey Price.

Slovenian center Anze Kopitar believed he was headed to the Columbus Blue Jackets but ultimately fell to the Kings at No. 11.

I thought at that point, I had a somewhat strong feeling or somewhat of an idea that I was going to Columbus. I had met with their GM a few times. All those meetings were very productive so I figured that was it. They were pretty straight forward by saying that if I was still available that they would pick me. It didn't happen but at the same time I'm very thankful because being in L.A. we've had some success and it's been great for me. - Anze Kopitar (Oral History of 2005 NHL Draft)

Crosby and Kopitar currently rank No. 1 and 2 in career points among players from the 2005 NHL Entry Draft (944 and 690 respectively).

The duo are a huge reason only four teams have won the Stanley Cup in the eight seasons since 2008-09, as each player has won it twice.

"The Piece"

It is said that offense wins games, but defense wins championships.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the career of Rob Scuderi.

A fifth round pick in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft, Scuderi has never scored more than 16 points in an NHL season. He has never been named to an All-Star Team or won an individual postseason award.

While his nickname "The Piece" was somewhat ironically given, Scuderi played a pivotal role in winning the Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 2009 and the Kings in 2012.

Rob Scuderi - History Will be Made 

When the Kings lured Scuderi away from Pittsburgh, it signaled their commitment to defense and helped create the strongest D corps in the NHL.

Stanley Cup Moments - Episode 11 - The 5-Minute Major

The Here and Now (and the Future)

The two teams appear to be headed in slightly different directions at the moment.

The Penguins are reigning Stanley Cup champions and the Kings are struggling to redefine their identity.

As long as both teams are able to retain their similar cores: Two All-Star Centers (Crosby and Evegni Malkin, Kopitar and Jeff Carter), an elite defenseman (Kris Letang, Drew Doughty) and a world-class goaltender (Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury, Jonathan Quick), then there's no reason to think both teams won't continue to contend for the Stanley Cup in the near future.

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