We’re down the conference finals in the NHL playoffs, and the Western Conference battle starts on Sunday night when the Los Angeles Kings visit the Phoenix Coyotes. Both teams have won as underdogs in the first two rounds, especially the Kings who, as the 8-seed had to take out t#1 Vancouver and #2 St. Louis. Now it’s #3 Phoenix that’s next in line, as TheSportsNotebook previews the series.
Defense—specifically goaltending was the foundation of both teams all year long, and Kings goalie Jonathan Quick and Coyote netminder Mike Smith have taken their already formidable games up a notch for the playoffs. Quick withstood the immensely talented Vancouver frontline, while Smith survived a shot barrage put him on by Chicago and Nashville. This latter point though, underscores an edge Los Angeles has, and it’s the defensive team that’s in front of the goaltender. Los Angeles was pretty good during the season at preventing shots. They haven’t been as strong here in the playoffs, although playing five of nine games against the Canucks will hurt anyone’s numbers here. We can give Phoenix the same benefit of the doubt in their first-round game against offensive-minded Chicago, but they also left Smith exposed quite a bit against Nashville. The Coyotes are getting better offensive work from their defensemen—Keith Yandle and Rostislav Klesla are among the team’s assist leaders in the playoffs—then they are at stopping shots.
The big surprise of the playoffs is not so much that Los Angeles has pulled the aforementioned upsets—when you have a goalie that’s talented and locked in, that’s always possible—it’s the way their offense has also stepped up. Dustin Brown leads the team with six goals and even when he’s not scoring he’s consistently active on the wing. At center Anze Kopitar and Mike Richards are distributing the puck and providing some scoring support. Overall, the entire team is moving the puck well, sharing in the offense, with Brown stepping up as the clear go-to guy to light the lamp. On the flip side, Phoenix is not getting that same kind of action. Antoine Vermette has played well at center, but he needs more help from forwards Ray Whitney, Shane Doan and Radim Vrbata than he’s gotten so far in the playoffs. The positive for the Coyotes—this trio played better against Nashville than they did through the regular season or in the first round against Chicago. Perhaps they’re going to become like the LA offense and start peaking at the right time.
Both goalies are strong enough that even power play goals are going to be tough to come by. Both teams killed penalties well all year and have done so in the playoffs, although in both cases, Los Angeles is a little better than Phoenix. If we anticipate a series filled with 2-1 and 1-0 games, a little better is all it takes.
Phoenix has home-ice advantage, but I believe that right now, Los Angeles is the better team. The seeding discrepancy is misleading. Phoenix defaulted to the #3 seed by virtue of nipping out the Kings for the Pacific Division title. In reality, these were the two worst teams in the Western Conference playoff field and not much separated them over an 82-game regular season. It looks to me like Los Angeles is the one who’s got more coming together on the offensive end right now, and while I fully expect Smith to continue his great games, he’ll be matched by Quick and LA can muster up a little bit more offense. The downside to picking Los Angeles? They’ve become the trendy pick, as evidenced by the fact they are a (-170) favorite to win the series (meaning you’d have to bet $170 to win $100), while you can get the Coyotes at (+150). The underdog is 5-1 in the six Western Conference playoff series to date. Is that a trend, or does it mean the favorite is due? For me, I’ll say the latter and while I’m not as sure as Las Vegas seems to be I’ll pick the Kings in six games.