Sunday, June 10, 2012 Updated: June 11, 11:43 PM ET
Jonathan Quick shoulders Kings' fate
By Marty Dobrow Special to ESPNBoston.com
Hockey history sits squarely on Jonathan Quick's shoulders.
On one shoulder is the angel, appropriate enough for the goalie of the team that hails from Los Angeles. Going into Monday night's Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals, Quick has the opportunity to do what not even Wayne Gretzky could accomplish: lead the Kings to a championship. It would be the first time in the franchise's 45-year history that the Kings won the Cup.
Jonathan Quick has led the Kings to the brink of hockey history.
On the other shoulder are the New Jersey Devils, who have seized momentum with a pair of wins. Two more and the Devils would be the first team in 70 years to come back from a 3-0 deficit in the finals.
Whether the Kings prove champs or chokers, the emergence of Jonathan Quick has been one of the great hockey stories of modern times. An NHL All-Star this year for the first time, Quick all but willed the Kings into the playoffs. They qualified for the eighth seed in the Western Conference despite scoring the second fewest goals in the NHL. Quick's 1.95 goals-against average was second best in the league.
In the playoffs, he has been putting together an absolutely historic run. The Kings knocked off three heavily favored teams to get to the finals, then ran out to a 3-0 lead against the Devils. At that point, they were a staggering 15-2 in the playoffs (including 10-0 on the road), and Quick had been almost impenetrable.
His teammates were regarding his performance with something approaching awe. Willie Mitchell referred to him as "all-world," while Jarret Stoll upped the ante by saying Quick was "playing on another planet."
Quick was being anointed in most circles as the odds-on favorite to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP.
Not so fast, said Quick himself, who has adopted a Bill Belichick-like media posture of deliberate boredom in the postseason. With that 3-0 lead, he said at maximum expansiveness, "We only have 15 wins, so we need one more."
That one has proven elusive. The Devils ratcheted up the pressure with victories of 3-1 (including an empty-netter) and 2-1. New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur, who was playing in the NHL when Quick still had baby teeth, has been brilliant. Quick still has a 1.43 GAA that would be the best ever recorded in a playoff run of 15 or more games, but now there will be plenty of pressure between the pipes in L.A.
Stanley Cup Finals
Get all the news and commentary on the Devils-Kings matchup on ESPN.com's matchup page.
Across the country, Quick's former coaches from his formative hockey days have been rooting hard for a player they remember as talented, a bit immature and -- in contrast to his Belichickian brevity -- gregarious.
"I've watched the interviews, and he's very guarded in that respect, and I think he has to be," said John Gardner, head coach at the legendary Avon Old Farms program in Connecticut for the past 37 years. "But that's not his personality. He's very outgoing. He was the classic risk-taker at Avon. If you were to put him in a psychological category, it would be 'risk-taker.'"
According to Gardner, Quick came to Avon as a "repeat sophomore from Hamden High School." During his junior and senior years, he led Avon to New England championships. He was then selected in the third round (No. 72 overall) by the Kings in the 2005 draft, but chose to go to the University of Massachusetts. On his way out the door, Quick was met by Gardner, who had coached a number of NHL players, most notably Brian Leetch, one of two American-born players ever to win the Conn Smythe (Tim Thomas of the Bruins is the other).
"I said, 'Jonny, you've got the world in front of you,'" Gardner recalled saying. "'You've got a lot of talent. The only person that can really stop you is you.'"
At UMass in 2005-06, Quick arrived at a program with a senior goalie, Gabe Winer, who had been starting since his freshman year. Quick shared time with Winer that year, and the results were mixed. His goaltending coach, Jim Stewart, kidded him at one point, "If your GPA could be your goals-against average, and your goals-against could be your GPA, we'd be in good shape."
Stewart, who briefly played goalie for the Bruins in the 1979-80 season and went on to coach the position at the college level for 23 years, said that Quick's love for the sport and competitive drive were obvious, but that he had some growing up to do. He was "kind of immature."
UMass head coach Toot Cahoon added that Quick "had to emotionally catch up to his physical ability."
Jonathan Quick's former coaches hope to see him back at Avon Old Farms School and UMass with the Stanley Cup in tow.
In his sophomore year, Quick led UMass to its one-and-only NCAA tournament appearance. He was named an All-American, as he sparked the Minutemen to a program-record 21 wins. According to Stewart, "He was the backbone of that team, as he is now with the Kings."
Quick then left UMass and began his journey through pro hockey. It was not a slam dunk -- well, a breakaway empty-netter -- that he would succeed. He had been only the eighth goalie selected in the 2005 draft. In 2006, the Kings used their first pick (No. 11 overall) on Jonathan Bernier, the first goalie chosen.
Quick labored through the American Hockey League, and even briefly through the low minors of the East Coast Hockey League.
"It wasn't a foregone conclusion [that Quick would make it]," said Stewart, who went to watch him with some frequency in the minors. "He was just another goalie with potential."
But in 2009-10 Quick was installed as the Kings' starting goalie. Each year his numbers have improved: higher save percentages, lower GAA, more shutouts (including an NHL-best 10 this year). His former coaches have been watching the evolution with pride.
"He's the reason they got in the playoffs," Gardner said. "They'd all be playing golf right now if it weren't for Quick. I watched a lot of regular-season games, and he was just phenomenal. Unbelievable. They would just get dominated, and he'd give them a chance to win."
For Cahoon, Quick's emergence has been a joy to behold. "His confidence level, his demeanor, his ability to lock in focus -- that's the growth I see," Cahoon said. "He had physical attributes, and he had the compete level necessary to keep climbing the ladder. It was just a question of summoning the discipline, the emotional self-control, and the understanding of what it takes to live a professional life."
Added Stewart, "Everyone has their own growth, the time when they get it."
If Quick's former coaches get what they want, a certain well-traveled chalice of silver and nickel might make an appearance at the Avon Old Farms School and at the University of Massachusetts before long. They would like to see nothing more than the old, gregarious Jonathan Quick toting the Stanley Cup.
For now, though, the goalie remains quiet and focused. John Gardner tried to lighten the mood recently by texting Quick after hearing him say "organ-eye-zation" in a terse news conference.
"I asked him why he is talking like he's from Saskatchewan, rather than Hamden, Connecticut," Gardner reported with a laugh.
Quick hasn't responded quite yet. Said Gardner, "The last thing he should be doing now is looking at his phone."
Especially when history is on the line.