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Monday, April 12, 2010
Kings-Canucks Preview


Wipe the slate clean and let the real hockey season begin!The Kings and the Vancouver Canucks start their series in Vancouver on Thursday night. So how does it shape up? Let's take a look:Regular Season:

The Canucks were 49-28-5, good for 103 points and third place in the Western Conference.

The Kings were 46-27-9, ringing up 101 points and finishing in sixth place in the Western Conference, reaching 100 points for only the third time in team history.

The Canucks dominated the season series, winning three games and losing just one. That one game was played most recently, an 8-3 shellacking by the Kings on April Fools Day. Dustin Brown had a hat trick and a 4-point night and Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo looked like he was sleepwalking.

which brings up the  first key category:

Goaltending:

Luongo, who is also his team's captain, will be under the spotlight in Vancouver, just as he was in February as the go-to goalie for Team Canada at the Olympics. Canada won the gold medal but Luongo had some very pedestrian moments, especially in that final Gold Medal game against the United States--a shaky glove hand, a lot of big rebounds, not the usual performance by the guy they affectionately call "Bobby Lu" in Vancouver.

Long considered one of the best goalies in the game, Luongo wasn't quite the same after the Olympic Games. He won 40 games this season and is sporting a 2.57 GAA going into the playoffs, along with a .913 save percentage, but he wasn't his usual sparkling self in the second half of the season--the game against the Kings on April 1 was one of a few such late-season examples.

Jonathan Quick has also struggled down the stretch.

After winning his 39th game on March 22, exactly three weeks ago today, Quick was winless in his next eight attempts to reach the 40-win mark. And his teammates scored only 11 goals for him while he was in the net during that stretch.
This guy was a rock in the early part of the season for his team. But the Olympic break was devastating for him. As the third goalie for Team USA, Quick saw no game action and didn't get as much work in practice as he needed to stay sharp. Once he returned to the Kings, it was apparent his game was off. He wasn't as sharp in his net coverage and rebound control. Appearing  in 72 games, by far the most he has played at any time in his career, he appeared tired down the stretch.Quick's numbers are similar to Luongo's--a GAA of 2.54 and a 9.07 save percentage. But the numbers won't tell the story in this matchup. Game One is going to be absolutely critical--for both Quick and the Kings. Even if the Kings lose, it'll be okay if Quick's body language, net demeanor and confidence are all positive. But if he lets in a soft goal or two and his team continues their trend of not scoring goals for him, Kings management is going to have a difficult decision to make:Do they stay with Quick, or pull up Jonathan Bernier from Manchester? Bernier won all three games he played for the Kings this season, looking cool, confident and technically sound as he notched one shutout, allowed just four goals and racked up a 1.30 GAA and  a .957 save percentage.Edge: Luongo. With a caveat:  If Quick snaps out of his 8-game swoon and the Kings win Game One, look out. He can get hot, forget that he's playing in the biggest games of his life, and carry the Kings a long way.

Offense:

The Canucks led the West with 272 goals scored and Henrik Sedin had a sensational, breakout year, winning the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's leading scorer, with 29 goals and 112 points. The chemistry between Henrik and his twin brother and linemate Daniel (29-56-85) is magical. Daniel hit the 85-point mark despite missing 19 games because of an injury. And don't forget the rambunctious Alex Burrows and his 35 goals and Ryan Kesler, who pitched in with 25 goals and 75 points.

This is a really well balanced team when it comes to offense and they have legitimate superstars in the Sedins.

The Kings are a different story. As great a player as Anze Kopitar is, and he had a terrific season, with career highs of 34 goals and 81 points, Kings coach Terry Murray will be the first one to tell you there are no superstars on his team (although I'd argue that Drew Doughty is well on his way). For that reason, Murray preaches vigilance and responsibility in both the offensive and defensive zones and wants hard plays to be made through the neutral zone by all his players.

The message is very simple: Guys, we're not good enough for any one guy to do anything by himself. So the Kings rely on bangers like Brown (24-32-56) and Wayne Simmonds (16-24-40) to wreak havoc at both ends of the ice. But they also got steady secondary scoring from players like Alexander Frolov (19 goals), Jarrett Stoll (16) and wily, fearless, net-crashing Ryan Smyth, who managed 22 goals and 53 points, despite missing 15 games with an injury.

But the sleeper on this team is Michal Handzus, who scored 20 goals and 42 points and is a force in opposing team's offensive zones, creating opportunities down low by generating terrific cycles or just banging his big body into the net, generating screens and pouncing on loose rebounds.

Edge: It depends. If the Kings can consistently start games the way they need to and not get behind the eight ball by either taking stupid penalties or not concentrating (or both) they are absolutely capable of prevailing over the superior individual skills of the Sedins et al. But that's a big if.

Defense

Both teams are in the same neighborhood in the goals allowed department: The Canucks with 218, the Kings with 211. But take a little closer look at the numbers and you see that virtually all of the Canucks regular defensemen are plus players. (Christian Ehrhoff is an impressive plus-36). These guys are responsible and hey don't take a lot of chances.

Ditto for players on the Kings like Sean O'Donnell, plus 15, Rob Scuderi (16), Matt Greene (4) and Randy Jones (a manageable minus 3).

But then you get to the two guys that are difference-makers, the kids: 23-year old Jack Johnson and the aforementioned 20-year old wunderkind, Doughty. Johnson is a great skater, who frequently jumps into the offensive fray--oftentimes at his and his team's peril: While he scored eight goals and 36 points this season, he's a minus 15, which means he's guilty of thinking offense too much when he should be thinking D.

That's a tradeoff the Kings usually are willing to live with because of Johnson's upside--the ability to get into the play quickly and have a significant offensive impact; witness a goal last week against Phoenix, when he passed the puck to Smyth, bolted for the net, got the puck back on his stick, cut in on the goalie and flicked it into the upper corner.

Of course, that goal came on the same night that Doughty barreled up the center of the ice, split two defenders, effortlessly moving the puck from his forehand to backhand and beating the goalie with a sweet little tap through his pads. Doughty, by the way, is the second leading scorer on the team, behind Kopitar, with 16 goals and 59 points. And oh by the way, he's a plus 20. The kid can change a game with his scary offensive skills (love that spin-a-rama!) and he's quick enough to get back to his own end to thwart any offensive threat.

And here's one other thing to keep in mind: Doughty seems impervious to pressure, butterflies, and the mental mistakes that typify the play of most young players, particularly defensemen. After being on the ice in the waning seconds of every important gamen Team Canada played in the Olympics--including the big one against the US--Doughty's Stanley Cup playoff debut will not be a big deal to him.

Edge: The Kings. Just because of Doughty. Yes, he's that good.

Playoff Experience:

We all know that this is the Kings' first trip to the post season since 2002, when Doughty was in 6th Grade. For most of the guys on the team, Game One on Thursday night will be the first playoff game of their careers.

It may take a while for some of these guys to settle down against the Canucks, who are loaded with playoff-seasoned guys, including Mikael Samuelsson and Brad Lukowich, both of whom have won rings.

While the Kings have twice as many ring wearers--Justin Williams, O’Donnell, Fredrik Modin and Scuderi--you can't talk a guy into getting into the necessary frame of mind for the NHL post-season. There's nothing like it in sports. You have to experience it, absorb it and learn from it--yourself.

Edge: Canucks.

Playoffs In Canada:

As Murray told the LA Times after yesterday's regular season finale, "They're going to get a real taste of playoff hockey right away, a bunch of guys that have never been there."

By "there," Murray not only meant the post-season, but he also could have been talking about the city and country where his young team will be opening its series.

"You go to a Canadian city," he continued, "it's not just the team you're playing against."

Truer words were never spoken. It's one thing to never have played a Stanley Cup playoff game. Quite another to play that first game on the road. And a much bigger deal to play it in a Canadian city.

Remember, it's not just a game north of the border. It's so much more.

Edge: Canucks

Intangibles:

To have any chance in this or any other series, the Kings know they have to do exactly what Murray and his staff have been preaching all season: First man into the offensive zone arrives with speed, strength and a truculent attitude (or as the great Philadelphia Flyers coach Fred Shero used to say, "in ill humor.") Next men in provide support. Cycle. Have heavy sticks around the net. Make hard plays going through the neutral zone, in either direction.

And then there's this: In the Kings' home finale on Saturday afternoon, Edmonton Oilers goalie Devan Dubnyk was sensational, making 52 saves in what turned out to be a 4-3 shootout win for the Oilers. But afterwards, Murray said the main reason Dubnyk was so effective was because the Kings didn't make his afternoon very difficult. There were no screens, not enough traffic, not nearly enough congestion in front or around his net. If a goalie in this league can see a puck coming at him, Murray said, he's going to stop it.

Hopefully, a lesson was learned. Because if the Kings don't make life very miserable for Bobby Lu, it's going to be a short series.

Prediction:

I have a feeling, a hunch. Quick's going to slay his demons. That's the real key here. It all starts with him. And the Kings will finally pull it together, not content to just be in the playoffs, but make some noise when they get there: Start games strong and play together for 60 minutes or beyond, if necessary. And, oh yeah, set up camp in front of Luongo and stay there.

Kings in 6.