| LOS ANGELES
LOS ANGELES As the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings prepare to tackle the hectic challenge of a truncated 48-game season, they can count on one unexpected blessing due to the protracted National Hockey League lockout.
Had the campaign started in October as originally scheduled, their inspirational goaltender Jonathan Quick would have been a conspicuous absentee while recovering from back surgery after being plagued by a herniated disc throughout the 2012 playoffs.
However, the lingering labor dispute between the league and its players was only resolved earlier this month, giving Quick enough time to be ready to lead the Kings when they launch their title defense at home to the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday.
"I feel great, it's the best I've felt probably since last February," said Quick, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player during the playoffs despite enduring pain since March because of a pinched sciatic nerve.
"There's no pain now, and I get to just play."
Armed with reflexes to match his surname, Quick helped his team win their first Stanley Cup with a series of brilliant postseason performances, allowing just seven goals in the best-of-seven finals against the New Jersey Devils.
Not once did he complain about the almost constant pain that eventually forced him to have a microdiscectomy in August when the herniated disc material was removed.
"If you'd sit on a plane, get in a car, drive to the rink, drive home or sit down for dinner, there was discomfort," Quick recalled. "But when I was playing, that's when I'd get the least amount of pain. It was manageable on the ice."
Having fully recovered from his surgery, Quick was given medical clearance to get back on the ice just nine days ago and he will be with his team mates when the Stanley Cup banner is unveiled at Staples Center on Saturday.
Los Angeles are widely considered to be one of the deepest teams in the league with four offensive lines capable of taking over the scoring responsibilities, a vital attribute in a campaign cut from the usual 82 games to 48.
"Everybody's talking about the importance of a good start," said Kings coach Darryl Sutter, who guided the Chicago Blackhawks to the Western Conference finals during the truncated 1994-95 season.
"But the one thing that I take out of the 48-game schedule that year (1994-95) was how you needed lots of players. I bet if you look back at Chicago that year we probably used 16 or 17 forwards."
Sutter and his players are also well aware that the Kings face a tough start to their title defense with 11 of their first 15 games on the road.
"Every year we'll have a 20-day road trip, which wears on you and it's going to be intense this season," Kings captain Dustin Brown said.
"It's going to be more important, probably this year more than any other, to take care of yourself off the ice. That will be magnified a little bit."
While the Kings delivered a Cinderella story last season as they beat the Western Conference's top three seeds in the playoffs en route to becoming the first eighth seed to win a Stanley Cup, they will be heavily fancied in this campaign.
With injured leading scorer Anze Kopitar (sprained right knee) expected to miss only the first three weeks, Los Angeles will be under closer scrutiny as they aim to become the first team to repeat as champions since the Detroit Red Wings in 1998.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)