Wow, the Kings. Whoddathunk that the 8th seed Los Angeles Kings would beat both top seeds in the Western Conference to make it all the way to the Conference Final series…in only 9 games. They’ll take on the 3rd seeded Phoenix Coyotes who have been very impressive in their own right beating a tough Predators team pretty convincingly last round.
I’m going to get the goalie talk out of the way right now. Both Jonathan Quick of the Kings and Mike Smith of the Coyotes have been excellent in the playoffs. At this point, I think the advantage is a wash. Both are great goalies who are going to make all of the saves they should and a few they shouldn’t. So really, it’s going to come down to which team is capable of making their opponent’s goalie less of a factor in the outcome of the series.
Like baseball, if the pitcher puts the ball where he wants it, the batter’s not hitting the ball. He may get lucky once in awhile, but as a rule, the best pitchers are the ones who can hit their spots consistently. The same is true in hockey. If a shooter places his shot exactly where he wants it, the goalie’s not making the save, unless he gets very lucky or happens to completely pull one out of thin air. I expect this series to be a defensive battle whose winner will be the team that capitalizes on mistakes. With defenses and goalies this good (LA gives up 1.56 goals per game; Phoenix, 1.91), high quality scoring chances come at a premium. If you have a great chance, you’d better bury it.
The Coyotes are just a tough team to beat. I know that sounds stupid and obvious, but they play strong defense and the entire team plays as a unit. They’re not going to outgun you, they’re going to keep the game close and just be a little bit better in the end. Coach Dave Tippett deserves a lot of credit for not only getting his team to buy into his approach, but to also have an environment where his players can execute it. The top line of Martin Hanzal, Radim Vrbata, and Ray Whitney isn’t going to shred you, but they always press forward. Shane Doan does not get the credit for being the consummate veteran player he is and Antoine Vermette was a great pickup as he leads the team in goals (5) and points (9).
Defensively, Oliver Ekman-Larsson is just so good. Maybe with the Coyotes nearing center stage, he’s going to start getting some credit for being the great player he is. He’s only 20, but he eats up so many minutes. He’s definitely overshadowed by Keith Yandle, who hasn’t scored a goal yet in the playoffs. The Phoenix powerplay isn’t bad as it is, but if he really gets going, it’s going to be lethal. But just keep looking around their roster of defenseman. If you haven’t been playing close attention, you end up getting surprised at whom they have. Michal Rosival, Derek Morris, Adrian Aucoin? None of these guys are studs, but they’re good, solid defensemen who aren’t going to be liabilities when you put them on the ice. They’re veterans and they’ve been around the block quite a few times.
With Mike Richards and Jeff Carter back together in LA, it’s easy for the storyline to point to them. But Carter’s only scored 1 goal in the playoffs. Richards has 8 points, so he’s been no slouch, but the real storyline for the Kings these playoffs is Dustin Brown. He’s always been a favorite of mine and this postseason, he’s establishing himself as a real power forward that can have an impact on all phases of the game. And it wouldn’t be fair to not mention Anze Kopitar as a main cog for the Kings. That guy is an absolute workhorse and would be considered a superstar if he played in a market that got more attention.
That said, I don’t want to diminish what Richards and Carter have done. Both players are premier offensive threats and can play defensive shutdown roles with the best of them. So what does that do for the team? The Richards/Carter combo forces teams to pay a lot of attention to them and take some defensive attention away from the Kopitar/Brown/Williams line. They can also match up against the top line of the other team. Now Kopitar doesn’t have to focus on defense as much and can be skated in more offensively favorable matchups.
Unlike the Coyotes’ defense that’s mostly a veteran corps, the Kings have a number of young players who really contribute big time. The emergence of Slava Voynov allows the Kings to trade away Jack Johnson and even a guy like Alec Martinez is playing solid minutes when tabbed. And getting the most minutes on the team is the duo of Drew Doughty and Willie Mitchell, who have been nothing less than rock solid.
How do these teams match up? Even though the numbers say the opposite (by only a little), I’m a little more trusting of the team Coyotes defense in general situations. In this series, though, the Kings definitely have more firepower than the Coyotes and more than the Coyotes’ previous opponent, the Predators. Lack of firepower hasn’t stopped the Coyotes to this point and it won’t be a deadly blow to them now. Their structure keeps them in any game against any team.
The Kings, though, just seem to have that “it” factor. They’re very hard to beat defensively and they’ve got good scoring punch throughout their lineup. A player like Jarret Stoll can be sneakily productive, especially if all of the attention is being given to Carter, Richards, Kopitar, and Brown. And the skill of the forwards on the Kings is a little more refined than the top forwards of the Coyotes, so I think they’re more likely to finish the few chances that they get.
This should be an exciting, physical series that will likely see only a few goals scored each game. I just think that the Kings are a little bit better at the end of the day and will take the series in 7 games.