NHL Western Conference Final Preview - L.A. Kings Face Similar Phoenix
It's not a matchup that exactly screams hockey: Los Angeles against Phoenix in the month of May.
But both Pacific Division teams have played spectacular defense, allowing less than two goals per game, a playoff best. The Kings are looking for their first Stanley Cup in the 45-year history of the franchise. Meanwhile, the Coyotes are just trying to make the franchise's first Cup Finals appearance, and continue an unlikely case of hockey fever in the desert.
So who's going to make the Stanley Cup Finals? First, let's look at how they got to the Conference Final:
The Coyotes won five games in a row to end the regular season with 97 points and rode the great goaltending of Mike Smith to gain the Pacific Division Title. Smith only allowed two goals in the final five regular season games, leading Phoenix its first division title ever in team history (even in the days as the Winnipeg Jets from 1979 to 1996).
Phoenix defeated the Chicago Blackhawks in six games in their first-round matchup. Although the Coyotes were the higher seed, they finished the season with a worse record and were predicted to lose the series against the more experienced and savvy Blackhawks. The series was a thriller, featuring five overtime games leading to three Phoenix victories and some tremendous drama every night.
The biggest game that swung the series in Phoenix's favor was Game 4. Chicago came back from a 2-0 deficit late in the third period but Mikkel Boedker put a dagger past goaltender Jonathan Crawford in overtime and gave Phoenix a 3-1 stranglehold on the series. With a chance to win the series in Game 6, Phoenix jumped ahead early and never looked back, defeating Chicago 4-0 behind two key power-play goals.
In their second round matchup Phoenix was once again the higher seed but considered the formidable underdog to the scrappy and resurgent Nashville Predators. In the first two games of the series goaltender Mike Smith was not at his best, but the Phoenix offense game out firing, with nine goals. Antoine Vermette scored three points in these first two games and set the tempo, overpowering the supposedly stingy Nashville defense.
After Nashville shut out Phoenix and took Game 3, Smith responded. He allowed just one goal in the final two games and Martin Hanzal scored the game-winner in the second period, propelling Phoenix to the Western Conference Finals.
The Kings picked up some serious momentum by winning six straight games in March, but they faltered down the stretch with two straight overtime losses against San Jose. This knocked the Kings from third to eighth and made their road to the Western Conference Finals all the more tougher and improbable. Their first matchup on this road? The top-seeded and defending Western Conference champion Vancouver Canucks.
The Kings showcased their road dominance by defeating Vancouver all three games on the road in convincing fashion. In Game 1, the Kings had outplayed Vancouver the entire game, but the score was tied 2-2 when L.A.'s Jeff Carter perfectly deflected the puck off his skate into the stick of Dustin Penner, who scored and put the Kings up for good.
Down 3-0 in the series, Vancouver needed a response and the return of Henrik Sedin provided the spark for the Canucks. Sedin led the Canucks to a 3-1 victory and allowed the twin duo of Henrik and Daniel Sedin to shine on the power play. But in Game 5 back in Vancouver, the Kings won in OT and shocked the President Cup Champion Canucks to win the series 4-1.
In the second round, the Kings dismantled and humiliated the St. Louis Blues in four games. The key to this series was the Kings' penalty kill, which astoundingly allowed zero power play goals in 17 opportunities. On offense, the Kings scored fifteen goals in four games and attacked normally-stellar Blues goalie Brian Elliott's top-ranked defense. The strengths of all four offensive lines for the Kings overpowered and physically dominated a St. Louis defense that had been outstanding all season.
To complicate the matter, the loss of top Blues' defenseman Alex Pietrangelo after taking a brutal hit from Dwight King really shook the course of the series in the Kings' favor. The Kings were the more aggressive team and dominated St. Louis in all phases. In Game 2, the Kings barraged the Blues with four first-period goals and put the game out of reach, continuing their undefeated streak on the road this season.
The Pacific Division rivals split six matchups during the season. On Oct. 20 in Phoenix, the Kings dominated to a 2-0 victory behind another shutout from goaltender Jonathan Quick. In the second matchup on Oct. 29th, Phoenix won in overtime 3-2 with two goals from Radim Vrbata and an OT winner by Daymond Langkow.
The Kings beat the Coyotes 4-3 on Dec. 26 at Staples Center, the first matchup in which current head coach Daryl Sutter took over the reigns for the Kings. Raffi Torres scored two goals for the Coyotes, but will not be a factor in this series due to his 25-game suspension for a headshot on Chicago's Marian Hossa.
The Kings won another one-goal game at Staples Center on Jan. 5, beating Phoenix 1-0 behind a great performance by Quick. On Feb. 16, the Coyotes took the fifth matchup 1-0 on a game-winner by Radim Vrbata, who has scored five goals this season against the Kings, his personal best against any team. In the final matchup of the regular season between these teams on Feb. 21, the Phoenix Coyotes won a 5-4 thriller in a Glendale shootout.
Matchup to Watch: Quick vs. Smith
Goalies Jonathan Quick and Mike Smith are the main cogs behind each team's success so far in the season and will play vital roles in determining the winner of the Western Conference. Quick and Smith have nearly identical save percentages at .949 and .948 respectively which are ranked at the top of the remaining teams left in the playoffs.
Vezina Trophy finalist Jonathan Quick has finally played up to his expectations as an elite goaltender, and has stepped up his game in the postseason when it counts. Over the last two postseasons, the Kings have exited in the first round. But Quick has been aggressive and dominant this postseason to change the playoff luck for the Kings. Quick has only allowed 14 goals in nine games and is setting the tone defensively for the stingy Kings defense.
One season after replacing star goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, who signed a nine-year contract with Philadelphia, Mike Smith has cemented himself as an elite goaltender in this league when given the opportunity. Smith's eight shutouts during the regular season and his tremendous play during the postseason have propelled Phoenix to its first ever trip to the Western Conference Finals.
Although the goaltenders will obviously not be scoring in this series, in order for both teams to remain successful, both teams need to retain the great goaltending and strong penalty kill that got them here. This matchup should be exciting and give us a taste of two tremendous goaltenders going at it, stopping pucks and anchoring defenses that have been extremely successful all season.
So far this postseason, the Kings have only allowed three power play goals in nine games while the Coyotes have only allowed four goals in eleven games. Both teams play strong penalty kill and rely heavily on their big defensive lines and strong goaltenders to keep pucks out of the net when down one man (or more).
Neither team has been very successful scoring on the power play, but the Coyotes have five power play goals this postseason. The Kings have scored just four, plus a playoff-leading two short-handed goals from captain Dustin Brown. In order for either team to take control, someone will need to score on the power play. The Kings and Coyotes have been relatively unsuccessful on the power play this postseason (both are below-average in PP percentage), but are wearing down their opponents by the amount of minutes they are logging on the attack.
Logging long amounts of penalty time strains the opponent’s attackers by forcing them to play strenuous minutes on the penalty kill, allowing for the Kings' and Coyotes' suffocating and fresh defenders to take control when they are on defense. Whoever wins this battle by killing and drawing penalties will ultimately control most of the games in this series.
Prediction: Kings in Seven
This season, both the Kings and Coyotes have exceeded expectations and both teams are coming in hot. I expect the Kings to play strong on the penalty kill and I expect Phoenix to be aggressive and control the boards being physical. This series is fascinating on multiple levels and will come down to power plays goals and late scoring. I do not expect either team to jump out to early leads and but I do expect more scoring than the regular season matchups would indicate.
When it comes down to it, the L.A. Kings are playing the best hockey in the sport right now and are undefeated on the road. They will continue this hot style of play and win a tightly-contested Game 7 in Phoenix, sending the Kings to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Game 1: Sunday, May 13 - Kings at Coyotes, 5 p.m. PT (NBC Sports Network)
Game 2: Tuesday, May 15 - Kings at Coyotes, 6 p.m. PT (NBC Sports Network)
Other dates and time to be determined.