NHL Playoffs 1st Round Preview: LA Kings-Vancouver

The Vancouver Canucks came within one game of winning the Stanley Cup last season. Just as they did in 2011, the Canucks have posted the best overall record in the NHL, been honored with the President’s Trophy and will have home-ice advantage throughout the postseason. Will that translate into a Stanley Cup or will this be another year of angry riots replete with a couple making out in the midst of the chaos? The opponent in the first round will be the 8th-seeded Los Angeles Kings. TheSportsNotebook previews the series…

Vancouver brings a tremendous package of offensive talent to the ice that Los Angeles simply can’t match. Henrik Sedin is the game’s best passer at center, and it’s starting look like his brother Daniel, coming off a concussion, will be healthy and ready to play for this series—or least ready to play. The latter Sedin is one of the league’s best finishers, leading to the inescapable conclusion that when they were kids Henrik was always feeding Daniel when they went out to skate. The Canucks get decent supporting work from Alex Burrows and the defenseman are skilled passers. Collectively this adds up to a team that makes you feel like you’re watching a work of art as they move the puck up and down the ice.

But the NHL playoffs are not about artistry, they are about toughness. Vancouver learned that at Boston’s hands last year, and they also learned it from Chicago. The Blackhawks nearly upended the favorites in the opening round, rallying from a 3-0 deficit in games to force a Game 7 before Vancouver avoided complete humiliation. A common theme from that series, and the Cup Finals, is that the Canucks have learned what it takes to compete in the postseason. In that light, the 2012 Canucks fall in line with teams like the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins, who had to lose a championship before they could win one. But what if Vancouver is the West’s Washington? The team who’s too soft to win, but if they bulk up, they lose the very identity that made them a favorite to begin with? If that’s the case, can Los Angeles pull the upset?

The Kings have an outstanding goaltender in Jonathan Quick, who ranks right up there with Henrik Lundqvist, Tim Thomas and other more heralded netminders. Los Angeles plays good lockdown team defense, with Willie Mitchell, Slava Voynova and Drew Doughty being the best of a group that ranks #5 in the NHL at shot prevention. Combined with Quick’s excellence, they make the Kings the second-best in the game in scoring defense.

Los Angeles lacks a proven goal-scorer, but Anze Kopitar at center is adept at finding anyone who is in position to shoot, having delivered 51 assists this year. And Los Angeles will have their chances. The Vancouver defense exposes it’s goaltenders a lot, ranking in the league’s bottom third at shot prevention. Goalie Robert Luongo can be truly outstanding at times, and at others—like the last five games of last year’s Finals, he can be completely maddening. If that happens, Vancouver has a reliable backup in Cory Schneider, who has a 93% save rate, superior to Quick, Thomas or Lundqvist. Granted, that’s without as much playing time, but Schneider still played often enough that we can’t dismiss the number the way we might a .725 batting average at this point in the baseball season. Nor can we dismiss the possibility that Vancouver will turn to him quickly.

I like the Kings as a live dog in this series. When you can play defense and have a dominant goaltender, you can win any hockey game, and that’s the kind of formula that can frustrate a favorite. I can see a possibility where Los Angeles does that, but still gets swept in a series of 1-0, 2-1 games capped off by a 3-2 loss in double overtime. But I can also see the Canucks letting frustration getting the best of them, and Los Angeles pulling a seven-game shocker. It wouldn’t be the NHL playoffs without something breathtaking going down and a Kings upset is my pick this year.