|ESPN.com: NHL Playoffs 2012||[Print without images]|
There are no easy draws in the Western Conference, and the President's Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks certainly didn't get one with the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings.
Then again, it can't be any worse than drawing the eighth-seeded Chicago Blackhawks a year ago, a team that had been their kryptonite until Alex Burrows' overtime goal in Game 7 capped a thrilling first-round series -- perhaps the best NHL playoff series in years -- and the Canucks went on to the Stanley Cup finals.
Ah, but we know how that run ended. By losing four of their last five games to the Boston Bruins in June, the Canucks faced their share of questions entering the 2010-11 season.
They responded by putting up the NHL's best regular-season record. OK, then.
The Kings? A coaching change in November, a blockbuster trade in February, a second-half surge and two straight extra-time losses to rival San Jose in the final days capped a wild regular season for a team that some had believed was poised to win their second division title in franchise history.
Instead, the Kings draw arguably the toughest first-round matchup in the NHL playoffs.
The two teams split their season series, winning two games apiece, the Canucks winning the last encounter 1-0 at Rogers Arena on March 26. And there is some fairly recent history between the two teams as Vancouver dispatched a young Los Angeles team in six games two years ago.
"We've had a little bit of a rivalry with them the last couple of years," Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa told the Vancouver Province on Saturday night. "They've been physical and chippy games and they are one of the teams we've had the most scrums with, I think, throughout the season. They've very, very deep up front, big and strong on the blue line and have probably one of the best goaltenders in the game."
1. Daniel Sedin's health: Last season's Ted Lindsay Award winner missed the final nine games of the regular season with a concussion he suffered via a Duncan Keith elbow on March 21. A source told ESPN.com on Sunday that the team wasn't sure at this point if Daniel will be ready to play in Game 1. Whether or not there are any setbacks or rust to his game once he does return is the next question. It's obvious, of course, but the Canucks can't win a Stanley Cup without both halves of the most dynamic twin combo in the NHL playing at full tilt.
2. Rock-solid goaltending: The Kings finished second only to the St. Louis Blues as the stingiest team in the league, allowing only 2.07 goals per game thanks in large part to Vezina Trophy candidate Jonathan Quick. Thing is, the Canucks were fourth in goals against (2.33) as Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider both put up terrific numbers. And so, what would have been an obvious edge for the Kings against most teams is marginalized somewhat by the fact the Canucks are just as solid in goal. The only intrigue, of course, is how the Luongo-Schneider drama -- a hugely popular topic in the Vancouver market -- plays out this spring. You can be assured Luongo, after a meltdown in the Cup finals last June, will be on a short leash given how much confidence the Canucks also have in Schneider.
3. Jeff Carter's health: The blockbuster acquisition was in a walking boot in late March after injuring his ankle. He avoided any structural damage, the team said, which is the good news. But he still missed the rest of the regular season and you have to wonder somewhat, given his history of foot issues, just how this impacts his playoff effectiveness. No word as of Sunday whether he'd be ready for Game 1. Playing alongside Mike Richards on the Kings' second line, he's of obvious importance, giving the Kings the top-six balance up front they'd been struggling to find all season long.
4. The deeper Canucks: These aren't exactly the same bunch of Canucks that got pushed around by the Boston Bruins in last year's Cup finals. Since that fateful series in June, the Canucks have added the likes of Dale Weise, Zack Kassian, David Booth, Samuel Pahlsson and Marc-Andre Gragnani. Kassian and Weise provide the grit up front, Pahlsson is the perfect third-line center who wins key faceoffs (and won a Cup in 2007), Booth is a reliable top-six option, and Gragnani provides blue-line depth. All around, this is the most depth the Canucks have probably ever had in their history. And given how beat up they were late in their run last spring, they know how important depth can be. Certainly, we like their bottom-six forward group more than we did a year ago.
5. The Kings' 29th-ranked offense: Goals have been hard to come by this season for the Kings, but one can point to their final stretch of the season to prove they've gotten over that malady. The Kings scored 54 goals in their 18 games through March and April, good for an average of three goals per game, which would rank them among the league leaders had they done that all year long. So balance that fact with their 2.29 season-long average, which ranks second-to-last in the NHL. This is a more comfortable team up front than it was three months ago.
• Kings' fourth-ranked penalty kill vs. Canucks' fourth-ranked power play: A power-play goal can be the difference on many nights during tightly played NHL playoffs games. L.A. is a stingy penalty-killing club, led obviously by Quick in goal but also by warriors Willie Mitchell, Rob Scuderi and Matt Greene on defense, and Selke-worthy forwards Anze Kopitar and Mike Richards. They can shut down the best of the best. Which is exactly what they face in the lethal Canucks power play, led by the Sedin twins and Ryan Kesler. This is the matchup that could decide the series.
• Kings' Mike Richards: When the Philadelphia Flyers shockingly traded their captain, Mike Richards, to Los Angeles last June, people whispered fairly or not, "What's wrong with Mike Richards?'' Well, this is his chance to re-establish himself as one of the premier leaders and clutch performers in the game. An upset series win over the Canucks with Richards playing a key role would do wonders to clam up his critics.
• Canucks' Roberto Luongo: It seems a little early to be playing this card already, but what the heck. Luongo's playoffs ended in a nightmarish fashion last June. It's funny, though, how everyone forgets he actually pitched two shutouts in that finals, he stood tall in that big Game 7 win over Chicago in the first round and he stoned Nashville and San Jose in the next two rounds. But until the day Luongo wins a Stanley Cup, his critics won't let go. So you can bet if the Kings get up early in the series, the focus will be squarely on Luongo's play with Schneider waiting in the wings.
• The Kings will be kicking themselves for squandering their Pacific Division lead in the final three days of the regular season. They'll give the President Trophy winners all they can handle, but it won't be enough in this incredibly tough matchup. Canucks in 7.