Raise your hand if you had Phoenix and Los Angeles in the Conference Finals this year. Anyone? If you didn’t, that’s completely understandable. Not like the former had an extensive history of playoff success since moving from Winnipeg, but if you want to use the old “sun shines on a underdog once in a while” reference, it makes perfect sense.
For the Los Angeles Kings, they entered the season with high expectations, but managed to underachieve through the first 82 games before coming alive in the postseason. But it would be accurate to describe them as the usurpers of the NHL postseason thus far, knocking off the top two seeds in the West (Vancouver and St. Louis) in successive rounds and barely looked like they broke a sweat doing it, winning eight out of their nine games played.
In short, the Pacific Division rivals enter their final four series with more on the line than they ever imagined. As such, let’s take a look at their battle for the right to represent the Western Conference in the 2012 Stanley Cup Final.
There’s a lot to like about the plucky Coyotes, who have ridden the otherworldly performance of goaltender Mike Smith and a lock step adherence to team defense in their first two series victories over a pair of Western Conference powerhouses (Chicago and Nashville).
The Coyotes continue to score by committee in this playoff run and no one has been more valuable to them up front than center Antoine Vermette, who has notched nine points in 11 postseason games and performed very well in the face off circle (58.4 percent). Since being moved from hockey purgatory in Columbus, he has been a revelation for the Desert Dogs. Captain Shane Doan has maintained a strong physical presence throughout this series as well.
The 2012 postseason has also been a coming out party for a player who should be getting Norris consideration over the next few years in Keith Yandle, who has recorded seven points and is a dominant plus six. Coupled with the workhorse effort of Oliver Ekman-Larsson (averaging 26:04 per game) and you’ve got a Coyotes blue line group that must be respected.
Phoenix has also gotten contributions from their grey beards as the 40 year Ray Whitney and grizzled veteran Daymond Langkow (5 points).
The Kings story is a quick one. Ok, that was bad, but it is the truth. Jonathon Quick has been absolutely dazzling this postseason with a 1.55 GAA and .949 save percentage. He has been a riddle wrapped in a conundrum for opponents this postseason and it should be interesting to see if the workmanlike Coyotes can solve him.
Since rumors of being shopped after the Kings acquired forward Jeff Carter from the Phoenix Coyotes, Kings captain Dustin Brown has been a force to be reckoned scoring wise and physically as his postseason numbers have shown (6 goals, 11 points, plus nine rating). Top center Anze Kopitar has helped set up quite a few of Brown’s scoring plays, looking much more comfortable in this post season than in years past, while fellow top line wing Justin Williams lends postseason experience to the group.
The Kings have also received good secondary scoring from center Mike Richards (3-5-8, plus four), hulking winger Dustin Penner (2-5-7, plus seven), and defenseman Drew Doughty (1-5-6, plus six).
They also boast the best penalty killing unit remaining in the postseason with a 92.1 percent kill rate.
If Los Angeles has one major concern heading into this series, it’s their power play. Of the final four teams in their respective conference finals, the Kings have by far the worst man advantage unit (8.5 percent). The Coyotes are known to be opportunistic, so it stands to reason that has the potential of becoming a prime focus, especially with their own PK unit.
For the Coyotes, one gets the distinct impression that if Mike Smith so much as falters at any time during the conference finals, then they’ll be hard pressed to overcome all the myriad problems the Kings present. They just don’t have enough reliable scoring to carry them through the series.
For Phoenix, it’s captain Shane Doan. Doan’s play, which was somewhat unproductive in the first round started to come around versus the Predators. If his solid play can heat up, then the Coyotes will have their power forward to match LA’s Brown.
For Los Angeles, it’s recent acquisition Jeff Carter. Carter started off his career with the Kings fairly well scoring wise, but his reputation of being a limited producer in the playoffs remains (four points, solid +3 rating). Like Doan, if he emerges as a threat, he can be a matchup nightmare for the Coyotes.
Hard to believe one of these teams will be going home, but the reality is there. Home ice for Coyotes helps, but the Kings have a veteran group that can handle playoff pressure and a goaltender who is Mike Smith’s equal or better. Therefore: Kings in six.
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