- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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One could only imagine what Jack Kent Cooke, the original owner of the Los Angeles Kings, would have said in 1967 if told the Kings would one day play the Phoenix Coyotes in the NHL's Western Conference finals.
A team in Phoenix? And the Kings survived all these years in Los Angeles?
Well, yes, Mr. Cooke, all true.
And there's Wayne Gretzky. His imprints are on this series, too. With hockey lagging in L.A. almost 24 years ago, he agreed to a trade from Edmonton and made hockey sexy again in Hollywood. There's a generation of Kings fans today that got into the game because of No. 99; there are teams all over the southern U.S. because of Gretzky. And in the desert, Gretzky coached Coyotes Martin Hanzal, Keith Yandle and Mikkel Boedker when they were youngsters, helping forge their career paths early on. Today, they are important players on a Phoenix team surprising the hockey world.
So here we are, with a Western Conference finals played amid palm trees and cactus. Why not, right?
Really, when you look at the expectations for the Kings last September, it's not that surprising they're in the conference finals. Many people had them challenging San Jose for the Pacific Division title. What ensued was a roller-coaster season that featured a coaching change, a systems change, a blockbuster trade and a team that finally played up to its potential late in the season.
The Coyotes, well, it is absolutely stunning they're here. Most people in September had the Desert Dogs missing the playoffs after losing star goalie Ilya Bryzgalov last summer. Ah, you should never bet against a team run by GM Don Maloney and coached by Dave Tippett. Enter goalie Mike Smith, who has one-upped Bryzgalov, and the league's truest lunch-bucket squad not only made the playoffs but won its division before upset series wins over Chicago and Nashville.
Few people will pick them against the Kings, either. Just what the rope-a-dope Coyotes love to hear.
1. Goalie glory: Mike Smith against Jonathan Quick? Is that even fair for the scorers? The NHL's two hottest playoff goalies meet in a delicious matchup. Smith's .948 save percentage and Quick's .949 save percentage are ridiculous. It stands to reason the Kings and Coyotes are also the two stingiest playoff teams in goals against per game. That each goalie got into the heads of opposing players in the opening two rounds is undisputable. Each team will have similar game plans: crash the net, look for rebounds, screen the goalie, and gets lots and lots of pucks on target. There's no fancy way to beat either of these incredible netminders. Just old-fashioned hard work.
2. Offense, baby: The Kings were ridiculed for their inept offense for most of the regular season. The Coyotes always have to work harder than others to manufacture goals. But in the postseason, the floodgates have opened. L.A. has potted 3.00 goals per game, and the Coyotes are just behind at 2.64; the clubs are tops among the eight Western playoffs teams. Not too shabby for two teams that were obviously below that in the regular season.
The Kings are led by their top two lines, one centered by Anze Kopitar and the other by Mike Richards. Both units have been 200-foot monsters and just too much to handle for opposing teams. The Coyotes have been more of a scoring-by-committee club, although Nashville coach Barry Trotz said one key reason for his team's loss in the second round was that the Coyotes' top two lines outplayed his top two lines. Hanzal and Antoine Vermette center the top two lines. Vermette, a late-season pickup, has been terrific, leading the team with nine points (5-4) in 11 games.
3. Blue-line prowess: Both teams got here with big-time contributions from their blue-line corps. And it's worth mentioning because neither team's defensemen get as much credit as they deserve because their respective goalies get so much of it.
But the Kings' core group -- Drew Doughty, Willie Mitchell, Rob Scuderi, Slava Voynov, Matt Greene and Alec Martinez -- top to bottom outplayed their counterparts from Vancouver and St. Louis.
Similarly, the Phoenix corps of Yandle, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Michal Rozsival, Derek Morris, Adrian Aucoin and Rostislav Klesla has done excellent work both in the Phoenix end and in the transition game.
Few teams, by the way, collapse in front of their net to block shots like the Coyotes, and the D-core is a huge part of that.
4. Special teams: Before the playoffs, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock told me he completely downplayed the importance of the power play in the postseason. I was surprised because I hadn't heard a coach say that before. Well, here are the Kings in the conference finals with a brutal 8.5 percent success rate on the power play -- only four goals in 47 chances; the Coyotes aren't much better at 16.1 percent (5-for-31). I bow to you, Mr. Hitchcock. Still, in a series where goals will be at an incredible premium given the two men in goal, a power-play goal here and there could make a huge difference in the outcome of the games.
Meanwhile, both teams have excellent PK units -- again no surprise there, given who's in goal. The Kings have an impressive 92.1 percent kill rate (three goals on 38 chances), and the Coyotes are nearly as good at 89.5 percent (four goals on 38 chances).
With both teams struggling on the power play and so proficient short-handed, each side can be as physical and aggressive as it wants to be 5-on-5 because it doesn't fear taking penalties.
5. Coaches: Tippett and Darryl Sutter are getting the most out of their players. They're pushing all the right buttons. Tippett is maximizing what he's got on his roster like no other coach in the league. Sutter has found a way to finally have the Kings play up to their potential. Both have old-school ways about them: Play hard or don't play at all. And both coaches believe offense comes from good defense. Keep your own end clean and clear, and the chances will come at the other end.
• Martin Hanzal vs. Anze Kopitar: The Coyotes' No. 1 center is also their top checker. He'll be asked to try to slow Kopitar's line, which also includes Dustin Brown and Justin Williams. Look for Tippett to have Hanzal out there as much as he can against Kopitar.
• Dustin Brown, Kings: Can he possibly be a bigger hero right now? Two straight rounds he's been the Kings' most impactful skater, leading the team in scoring and hitting every player in sight. His clutch play is a critical reason the Kings are where they are.
• Mike Smith, Coyotes: Well, what else can you say? "He was the MVP in this series by far, by far," Predators GM David Poile told ESPN.com after the second-round series. The Kings have more talent and are favored to win this series after knocking off the top two seeds in the West. Smith will need to be a hero yet again for the Coyotes to reach the Stanley Cup finals.
• I hate to go against the Coyotes after what they pulled off against the favored Blackhawks and Predators. But I've seen enough of a Kings team in mighty impressive wins over Vancouver and St. Louis to know that it's the team to beat not only in the West, but overall.
Kings in six.
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