The Los Angeles Kings start what’s going to be a TV gala of sports for the city of Los Angeles on Sunday afternoon. The Kings visit Detroit for an NBC game against the Red Wings (12:30 PM ET), shortly before we have consecutive games with the city’s basketball teams, as ABC’s doubleheader of Clippers-Knicks followed by Lakers-Heat begins a half-hour late. The Kings don’t give you the soap opera drama of the Lakers, or the recent struggles of the Clippers, but last year’s Stanley Cup champions are off to a very slow start, and in a compressed NHL season, that can’t be taken lightly. What’s the problem?
The Kings are 3-4-2 at this early date, five points out of the final playoff spot. There’s not a lot they’re doing well, as they rank in the bottom third of the NHL in both scoring and defense, their 5-on-5 play is poor, their power play subpar. Their ability to generate shots on goal hasn’t been awful, but being in the middle of the league, it doesn’t give you a sense of an imminent turnaround.
There’s one exception to these early doldrums and that’s the Los Angeles defense—not the ability to stop goals per se, but the ability to stop shots. The Kings are playing every bit as well here as they did last year, both regular season and playoffs. The defenseman led by Drew Doughty are keeping the exposure of goalie Jonathan Quick to a minimum.
It’s Quick, who won the Conn Smythe Award last June as the playoffs MVP (the NHL’s postseason award is based on their entire playoff run, not just the Finals). This year his 89% save rate is one of the worst in the hockey. There’s not much margin of error for goalies—the range from top to bottom goes from 95 to 89%, so that’s only six percentage points to cover thirty goalies. The positive is that if Quick regains his edge, the overall defensive effort will quickly move back up.
But what if he struggles? While Quick has been a good goaltender throughout his fairly young career, the 27-year-old had a breakout season a year ago, as he was Los Angeles’ one bright spot that carried them into the playoffs as the #8 seed and then made them unstoppable when the offense found themselves. If Quick reverts to pre-2012 norms, he’ll still be good, but no longer a defining factor in a game. And if he’s on a championship hangover and slips below those levels, even a little bit, Los Angeles is really going to get desperate for offense.
It was the emergence of the Kings’ offense that was the most stunning part of last year’s playoff drive. Anze Kopitar went from being a decent center to a positive beast. Dustin Penner and Jeff Carter turned into scoring machines. Mike Richards, Justin Williams and Doughty were dishing the puck with ease. I would use the word “breakout performance”, but it understates how out-of-nowhere it all was.
Kopitar dealt with an injured knee in the early part of this season, but is back to playing regularly. Penner has been in and out of the lineup. Carter has provided a little bit of scoring, but not like he did last June. In short, all of these players have reverted to form and that means Quick is going to have to turn it around…well, quickly if Los Angeles doesn’t want to find itself looking a long way up at the #8 playoff spot that they cashed into a Stanley Cup last year.
The fans at the Meadowlands saw overtime in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals, but they got the same result—a loss for the home team. The Los Angeles Kings beat the New Jersey Devils 2-1, and not only prevented the Devils from tying the series at a game apiece, but left the home fans with no guarantee their team will be back again, as the Finals now go west with Los Angeles having a chance to close out their first-ever Stanley Cup this coming week.
Both defenses did an excellent job in keeping the other team’s top scorers off the puck. While New Jersey was able to get 30 shots in regulation play, Ilya Kovalchuk was not an active part of the offense, with only two shots. The same goes on the other side. Los Angeles was held to 21 shots, and neither Anze Kopitar—the hero of Game 1—nor Dustin Brown or Dustin Penner—were able to get in the flow. The three combined for two shots.
Los Angeles controlled the overtime session, getting 11 cracks at Martin Brodeur, compared to only three shots on goal for New Jersey in the extra session. And with just over six minutes remaining in the first OT, Jeff Carter launched a no-look shot from center ice—a high-quality look with teammates screening Brodeur—and it found the back of the net.
Game 3 will be on Monday night in the Staples Center and New Jersey’s mental focus is crucial. If they play defense the way they did on Saturday night, the Devils can certainly start winning games and make this a series. If that’s their mindset, then the Finals are still very much in play—home-ice is not prohibitive, so losing two at home isn’t as much of a death wish as it would be in the NBA. But if New Jersey feels like they played as good a defensive game as they could and still lost, then the Kings can close this series and hoist the Cup in short order.
The Stanley Cup Finals begin tonight when the New Jersey Devils host the Los Angeles Kings. It’s not the matchup anyone would have predicted when this postseason began in mid-April, but it rarely is in the NHL. The Devils were seeded #6 in the East, while Los Angeles was #8 in the West, only the second eight-seed to make the Finals since the league went to the current playoff format back in 1994. TheSportsNotebook previews the series…
New Jersey may have been seeded sixth, but that is a little misleading. The Devils did accrue over 100 points in the regular season (2 for a win, 1 for getting to OT), and that’s a general mark of excellence. They happen to play in the toughest division in professional sports. Yes baseball fans, the Atlantic in the NHL is even more ruthless than the AL East in baseball, so the Devils trailed the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers. New Jersey had a much better record than division champ Florida and the Devils finished tied with Boston, the other divison champ. Since league rules require first-place teams to take the top three seeds, Jersey found itself in sixth, but for an 82-game schedule this was at least the #4 team in the East on merit and close enough and only seven points off the lead. All of which is the long-winded way of saying that their presence in the Finals is not some quirk of the playoffs—they are competitive enough that you might play the entire season over and see New Jersey show up as a 1-seed.
>The same can’t be said for Los Angeles. They came out of the Pacific Division, the weakest in the West and had to go to the bitter end just to make it into the playoffs. The Kings played themselves out of the division title and were passed by both Phoenix and San Jose in the closing days. Obviously it didn’t matter in the playoffs, but I don’t think even the most ardent Los Angeles backer would suggest that if you replayed the entire season the Kings could finish on top of the West overall. What they have is a great goaltender in Jonathan Quick, who has been one of the NHL’s best all season long and that single factor alone makes you a tough out in the postseason. What’s been nothing short of stunning is the way the Los Angeles offense has done a complete 180 since the start of the playoffs.
Los Angeles had one of the worst offenses in the NHL all season along, but they were a statistical anamoly. They were good at generating shots, but lousy at scoring and more often than not those two stats coincide, at least over the course of a long regular season. Perhaps it’s taken this long for the Kings luck to even out. More likely though, they are getting their best offensive players the most shots in the postseason. Dustin Penner’s seven goals are tied for second in the playoffs (the leader were Philadelphia’s Danny Briere and Claude Giroux who scored eight thanks to a wild first-round series with Pittsburgh). The Kings have gotten strong production on the opposite wing from Dustin Brown and whatever line is in the game, the center spot has been a source of strength. Anze Kopitar has delivered nine playoff assists and scored six times. And those of us who’ve charted each box score since mid-April (wait, did I really admit that in public? Never mind, forget I said it) know that Mike Richards and Jeff Carter have been consistently involved. LA’s also gotten some good passing and occasional scoring from defenseman Drew Doughty.
This offensive attack faces a New Jersey defense that spent the regular season as an elite unit in shot prevention. In the first round of the playoffs against Florida, the Devils seemingly forgot this and nearly lost to a Florida team they should have beaten in their sleep. After going to overtime of Game 7 to survive, New Jersey’s team defensive efforts have started to come back to form. They still gave up a decent number of shots to Philadelphia, but part of that is due to the Flyers being a great offensive team. By the last series against the Rangers, the Devils’ defense looked as good as new.
New Jersey is another team who has enjoyed an offensive awakening in the playoffs, albeit not as dramatic as Los Angeles. If the Kings’ turnaround was about better luck and better players taking the shots, we can focus on the latter reason for New Jersey’s revival. The Devil attack is top-heavy, very reliant on the forwards Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise to make things go. Over the course of the regular season, that’s not enough balance. But just like a pitching rotation in baseball that has two great starters gets magnified in the playoffs, so too does a hockey attack. Kovalchuk has seven goals and combined with his 11 assists, he’s the best offensive player in the postseason. Parise also has seven goals and the Devils are also getting consistent play from the center spot, with Travis Zajac having seven goals of his own and Adam Henrique doing a nice job.
The Kings’ defense will be tested and this is a unit that’s met every test thus far. It was the D that carried LA into the playoffs and once the postseason started they’ve been the best in the game. They were also one of the elite in shot prevention during the season, although that stat has been mediocre in the playoffs. This may also be conscious strategy though, to play more aggressively in offense, expose yourself on defense and rely on Quick to bail you out. To again cross sports for an analogy think of a basketball team with a great shotblocker that knows they need easier baskets in the offensive end. They go for more steals and know if they get beat, their mistakes can be wiped out. Nobody’s wiped out mistakes better than Quick, who’s got an amazing 94.6% save rate.
This brings us to the big storyline of the series and it’s the up-and-coming Quick looking for his first championship, against the veteran Martin Brodeur looking for his fourth in net for the Devils. Regular readers of TheSportsNotebook’s coverage know I’ve harped ad nauseum on the fact that Broduer is not the goaltender he once was and all the numbers bear that out. I’ve also harped on the fact that he’s a winner and somewhere along the line he can give you at least one big game where bails out an entire team. He’s done that in each series thus far, and against Florida and New York those were the series’ clinchers. The longer this series goes, the more the goalie situation shifts from an LA advantage to a wash.
Los Angeles is looking for its first Stanley Cup, the one pro sports championship the city has never won (they won the Super Bowl in 1983 when the Raiders were in Hollywood). New Jersey is after its fourth Cup and first since 2003. You know I tend to default to the team with the better goalie in the playoffs and that’s clearly the Kings here. But the way the Devils are playing, I feel like they can extend the series and if we reach a sixth game, I like Brodeur to again steal a win for his team late. In yesterday’s walk-through of recent Cup history, TheSportsNotebook noted that six of the last twelve years have seen Game 7s. I think we’ll see another one this year and New Jersey is the team that hoists the Cup high.
The New Jersey Devils didn’t make it easy on themselves and they undoubtedly gave some of their fans heart failure these past two games, but with a 3-2 overtime win on Friday night, they clinched the Eastern Conference title, beating the New York Rangers in six games.
Just as was the case in Game 5, New Jersey got off to a fast start and then gave it back. The Devils scored twice in the first period. Stephen Gionta, who seemingly came out of nowhere starting in the fifth game, fed Ryan Carter for the game’s first goal. Then Ilya Kovalchuk—who certainly did *not* come out of nowhere delivered a slapshot three minutes later and it was 2-zip. But the Jersey defense was not its usual lockdown self. Playing with an intensity appropriate to a team fighting for its life, the Rangers challenged NJ goalie Martin Brodeur with 14 shots—matching the Devils’ total—but Brodeur turned all 14 back.
The New Jersey offense slowed in the second period, but New York kept peppering away, getting 13 more shots. Their top player, Marian Gaborik didn’t score or have an assist, but his involvement, with four shots for the game, usually leads to good things. The Rangers broke through halfway through the period and then tied it on a Ryan Callahan rebound shot with seven minutes left before the second intermission. Both teams tightened up defensively in the third period, but it only took a minute and change into the overtime before New Jersey’s Adam Henrique scored the goal that clinched the East.
Mainstream media reports are full of references to 1994, when the Rangers were in the Meadowlands for a must-win Game 6, Mark Messier guaranteed a win and then backed it up with a third period hat trick. I’ll just refer you to TheSportsNotebook’s recap of that spring in the Big Apple, when the city won the Cup and got to within one shot of an NBA title with the Knicks. And later today we’ll be posting a similar tribute to New Jersey, who did the same in 2003.
New Jersey now moves on to meet Los Angeles in the Finals, beginning on Wednesday in the Meadowlands. Between now and Wednesday morning, we’ll have both a series preview and a historical look at some of the great Cup Finals.
All season long, Henrik Lundqvist has been money as the New York Rangers’ goaltender, and at key points during the first 2 ½ rounds of the playoffs he’s been the same. But Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the New Jersey Devils was not one of those times. Lundqvist was positively awful as the Devils won 5-3 and took a 3-2 lead in games.
It didn’t take long for New Jersey to come out and light the lamp. They have three goals in the first ten minutes of the third period. Stephen Gionta, hardly one of this team’s offensive threats, scored on a backhand, center Patrick Elias put one home on a tip-in and then Travis Zajac took a feed from Zach Parise. With six shots on goal in the first period, the Devils scored three times, a percentage that the Celtics and 76ers would have positive killed for in their NBA playoff game an hour and a half away in Philly.
New York came all the way back, pulling to 3-1 before the first intermission and then relying on quick strikes each of the next two periods. Ryan Callahan scored less than a minute into the second period and Marian Gaborik tied the game seconds into the third period with an unassisted wrist shot. It was a key goal by Gaborik and had it not been the only shot the Rangers’ best offensive player took all night, it’d have been even more impressive.
Gionta stepped up with an assist at 4:24 to go, feeding Jeff Carter and then the Devils put home an empty-net goal to clinch it. Prior to the empty net play, New Jersey got only 16 shots and scored four goals. The Ranger defense not only limited the shots, but they didn’t let key offensive threats Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk take a disproportionate amount. Parise was right after the game in saying he felt like his team played one of its worst games in the postseason. Yet an inexplicable meltdown by Lundqvist put New Jersey within one game of the Finals.
There’s no hockey tonight, as Los Angeles is home resting and waiting to travel to face one these two teams when the Finals start Wednesday night. Rangers-Devils resume hostilities for a potential clinching Game 6 in the Meadowlands on Friday night. If New York wins, reserve Sunday night in MSG for Game 7.
The Los Angeles Kings made their first Stanley Cup Finals since 1993—and just the second in franchise history—when they went overtime in Phoenix last night to beat the Coyotes 4-3 and capture the Western Conference finals in five games. The win completes a run where the #8 seed Kings not only beat the top three seeds—Vancouver, St. Louis and Phoenix—in their postseason run, but went 12-2 in the process. The NHL playoffs is unpredictable and the elements of random chance play a bigger role here than in most sports, but there’s nothing random about winning 12 of 14 games at the most important time of year. The Kings have peaked at the right time.
It’s the offensive prowess that’s really come out of nowhere. Goaltender Jonathan Quick has been one of the best at his craft all year and a reason I felt Los Angeles would pull the first-round upset over Vancouver. But in the ensuing two rounds, the Kings faced opponents with great goalies in their own right and it was the five players between the nets who stood up and gave Los Angeles the edge, and that happened again last night.
Phoenix played with the urgency appropriate to their situation and got an early power play goal from Taylor Pyatt, an unknown forward who would have a good game in this spot. The next Coyote power play produced another goal…but it was for Los Angeles, as Anze Kopitar scored shorthanded to tie the game.
The second period was wild, and Los Angeles launched a stunning 20 shots on goal. I’ve harped on this with Phoenix throughout their playoff run and once again the defense was unable to give any help to goalie Mike Smith. By the time all was said and done, the Kings had 51 shots for the game—in fairness, the overtime was nearly an entire period—but while Smith didn’t have his best game last night, he was always in the position of having to heroically save his team. That only works for so long. After Phoenix got a 2-1 lead, the Kings got consecutive goals from defenseman Drew Doughty, who’s been an understated contributor to the offense in the postseason, and then center Mike Richards lit the lamp on assist from key winger Dustin Penner. But before the period was over, Pyatt fed Keith Yandle and these defensive-minded teams were in a 3-3 shootout.
No goals were scored in the third period, though the Phoenix offense does deserve credit. They put 41 shots on Quick, one of the few times the entire postseason the Coyotes really challenged an opposing goaltender and veteran forward Shane Doan played like a man who wanted to extend his season, getting five shots. But with Kopitar, Richards and Dustin Brown leading an assault brigade at the other end it was too much. Nearly 18 minutes into overtime, Penner scored the goal that clinched the West.
Los Angeles now gets some time to rest up for the Finals. New York hosts New Jersey in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals tonight, with that series tied at two games apiece. The Rangers were decisively outplayed two straight times in Jersey, though goalie Henrik Lundqvist carried them to one win. Between the nets, Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk have been superior to Marian Gaborik and Ryan Callahan. That needs to change for New York tonight or they’re going to go back across the George Washington Bridge for a must-win game on Friday.
I love Martin Brodeur. I know, if you read through the commentary on the NHL playoffs I’ve made more negative than positive comments about the New Jersey goaltender, but that’s not out of spite, just that the numbers say he’s far from the goalie he once was. But even as a Boston fan he’s a goalie I root for and I absolutely love a night like Monday when, in a must-win spot, he wakes up the echoes of his younger days, turns back 28 of 29 shots and helps his team beat the New York Rangers 4-1 and tie up the NHL’s Eastern Conference Finals at two games apiece.
As good as Brodeur was, let’s also note that the offensive stars on both sides came ready to play last night. Marian Gaborik wasn’t able to light the lamp for New York, but if he gets five shots a game for the rest of this series, New York’s going to feel good about their chances. And New Jersey got similar offensive activity from Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise. None was more productive than the latter, who got an early assist to help the Devils take the lead and then scored two goals as his team pulled away.
It was less than stellar night for Henrik Lundqvist, the Ranger goalie, who saw 30 shots and allowed three goals—the fourth Jersey goal was an empty-netter with less than two minutes to play. I suppose Lundqvist is entitled, having delivered such a clutch effort in Game 3. But he’s the big edge New York is supposed to have in this series. Even the most ardent Ranger backer would have had to concede that New Jersey at least matched up in the 5-on-5 game and in fact, the Devils’ have been the superior team up and down the ice. Lundqvist needs to wipe away that advantage as this series returns to Madison Square Garden for Game 5.
Before we get to Game 5 in the East, we’ve got one in the West tonight, where Los Angeles takes its second shot at wrapping the series up when they go to Phoenix. This is the game I need to see the Coyotes win before I think this may be a series again. And really, I not only need to see them win, I’d like to see them do it some other way besides relying exclusively on goalie Mike Smith. He’s great, no question about it, but he’s not going to beat Los Angeles counterpart Jonathan Quick four straight times if the Kings are getting 15-20 shots a night more than the Coyotes. And that pattern held, even in Phoenix’s Game 4 win.
The Phoenix Coyotes weren’t able to stop the shot barrage that the Los Angeles Kings have put on this series, but they were able to mitigate it and redirect it, and that was enough for goalie Mike Smith to deliver the Coyotes a 2-0 win in Game 4 of the NHL’s Western Conference Finals and avoid a sweep.
Los Angeles got 36 shots on Smith, who’s routinely faced 40-plus throughout these playoffs. Normally a 36-21 shot edge like the Kings had will win you a game, but not only was Smith in lockdown form, but Los Angeles was not as successful getting the puck in the hands of their best players. Five shots were taken by defenseman Drew Doughty and five more by non-descript center Trevor Lewis. That’s a lot less scary than the puck being in the hands of Dustin Penner, Dustin Brown or Anze Kopitar. While Penner got four shots, the other two only combined for that same number.
Phoenix may not have pounded LA goalie Jonathan Quick with raw volume, but their key offensive players finally awoke. Shane Doan scored off an assist from Ray Whitney on a first period power play, and then Doan scored again, this time off an assist from Antoine Vermette in the second period. Doan, Whitney and Vermette are all important to the Phoenix offense and all have been virtually non-existent for the first three games.
Tonight the Eastern Conference has its Game 4, as New Jersey faces a must-win at home, trailing the New York Rangers 2-1 in games. This series is coming off Henrik Lundqvist’s brilliant goaltending performance in the Game 3 win and you wonder if, given how well the Devils otherwise played, if that isn’t the kind of game that can suck the life out of a team. I picked this series to go seven games at the start and I’m not changing, but I’m also on alert tonight to see if New Jersey folds, or if Lundqvist is about to go on one of these extreme hot runs that good goalies can do in the NHL playoffs.
The New Jersey Devils did everything they could between the goaltenders on Saturday afternoon. But the New York Rangers had the best man between the pipes and it’s that reason alone that gave them a 3-0 win in Game 3 of the NHL’s Eastern Conference Finals.
New Jersey played an excellent all-around offensive game, attacking Ranger goalie Henrik Lundqvist with 36 shots and the two stars of Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise combining for nine. Lundqvist, facing high volume and off the sticks of the opponent’s best players, turned everything away. On the other side, Martin Brodeur faced only 22 shots and the Devil defense did a reasonably decent job keeping Marian Gaborik under control—three shots total for the New York star—but the Rangers struck with a burst midway through the third period to break a scoreless tie and then tacked on a third goal late in the game.
>When New York’s offense finally did break through it was center Brad Richards and forward Ryan Callahan, the two biggest supporting pieces to Gaborik that were at the heart of the action. Richards picked up an assist on the power play goal to defenseman Dan Girardi that made it 1-0. Callahan then got an assist minutes later, and then he scored the final goal.
But ultimately this game was about Lundqvist and him putting his team on his back and carrying them to win. It’s what great goalies do if they want to win a Stanley Cup and the Ranger netminder took a huge step toward that goal Saturday afternoon in New Jersey.
The action goes west today where the Los Angeles Kings are looking to wrap up the Western Conference title over Phoenix in Game 4. We noted in today’s NBA wrap-up that yesterday was a particularly brutal day for Los Angeles sports fans at The Staples Center, and a Kings win could wash out some of the bad taste. Phoenix, after being destroyed in the first two games, at least played competitive hockey in their Game 3 loss. They’ve got the goaltender to win this game, they just need to find some way to make the game ugly and neutralize Los Angeles’ superior offensive play.
The Los Angeles Kings moved to within a game of sweeping of the NHL’s Western Conference Finals with a 2-1 win last night in Phoenix. The Coyotes came out and played hard, even got a brief lead, but in the end there’s too much talent on Los Angeles for this series to turn around.
After a scoreless first period, Phoenix scored early in the second. But as happens so often to a team swimming upstream, things immediately turned back against them. LA center Anze Kopitar scored the tying goal two minutes later and then Dwight King got the game-winner in the third.
Give Phoenix their due—they came out firing with 11 shots in the first period, they eventually scored first, and they killed all five Los Angeles power plays. Overall they played their best team defensive game of the series, keeping the Kings under 30 shots, after the number had exceeded 40 in the first two. But the lack of offense is stunning—not just the lack of goals, which isn’t surprising given the quality of goaltending at this level of the postseason. But that the Coyotes can’t even get their best players remotely involved in the offense. Ray Whitney, Radim Vrbata and Shane Doan combined for two shots last night. If the three had two shots apiece I’d be hitting these same themes. Two as a group is mindblowing. Compare it to LA center Kopitar who got four cracks at the net by himself.
A better series in the East resumes tonight (actually the game is Saturday, there is no NHL on Friday night) when the New York Rangers go to New Jersey with the series tied 1-1. The Devils were able to keep the Rangers’ best players—notably Marian Gaborik off the puck in Game 2 and that’s going to continue as a key throughout this series. New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist has alternated between decent and outstanding performances through this postseason. He’s coming off a decent game in defeat on Wednesday, so the trends say he’ll be locked in tonight.
The defenses were sharp last night in Madison Square Garden as the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers hooked up for Game 2 of the NHL’s Eastern Conference finals. But the Devils were the sharper of the two and they got the big goal when then they needed it to tie up the series at a game apiece with a 3-2 win last night.
New Jersey scored early on the power play, with its key players got together, Zach Parise feeding Ilya Kovalchuk for the early lead. Combined with a tough overall defense that limited New York to five shots in the opening period, the Devils took a 1-0 lead into the first intermission. The Rangers came out with a strong second period. They got 12 shots and with a goal early in the period and again about halfway through, they took a 2-1 lead, but before it was over, the Devils had snuck in the tying goal. Then early in the third period, at about the 17-minute mark, New Jersey center Adam Henrique missed a shot off the iron, but David Clarkson was in position for the putback and the Devil defense made the lead stand up.
Each team was fairly equal in shots—New Jersey leading 27-25 and each did the job in keeping the other team’s stars off the puck. After the early goal, Kovalchuk and Parise were quiet. But New York’s key players were even more silent, with Marian Gaborik and Ryan Callahan combining for only three shots. The potential vulnerability of Devil goaltender Martin Brodeur if he’s overexposed has been a regular theme of TheSportsNotebook’s playoff coverage, as has the quality of their team defense. The latter did the job last night, keeping New York’s shot totals to a moderate level and ensuring the best players weren’t the ones doing the shooting.
The Western Conference Finals resume tonight in Los Angeles, with the Kings having won the first two games in Phoenix and looking to put a stranglehold on the Coyotes. Honestly, right now I’m just looking for a reason to think the ‘Yotes can win a game. We’ve clearly hit a limit in how far goalie Mike Smith can personally carry the team and the whole formula of Smith getting more saves in a night than Mariano Rivera used to get in a season and covering for an offense that does nothing and a defense that doesn’t protect, has clearly run its course. Yes, Smith might win a single game for Phoenix. But tonight I not only want to see them win—trailing 2-0 that’s obviously a necessity—but I want to see them do it in a way that makes me think they can still make a series of this. I doubt we’ll see the former and convinced we won’t see the latter.
The Los Angeles Kings look unstoppable and the Phoenix Coyotes look like they’ve finally hit the end of the line, as the Kings took their second straight win in the desert, grabbing a 4-0 win in Game 2 of last night’s NHL Western Conference Finals.
Dwight King, a key part of the Game 1 win, made his mark on Game 2 quickly, with a goal off a feed from defenseman Drew Doughty. It was part of a period where Los Angeles hammered Phoenix goalie Mike Smith with 15 shots. In the second period the mismatch got worse. LA center Jeff Carter scored twice, the first time off a combined assist from Dustin Penner and Mike Richards and then on the power play from Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams. This too, was part of a period where the Kings pummeled Smith, hitting him with 17 shots. Smith didn’t have his best game, but there’s no way a team is going to compete at this level of the playoffs with the goalie is consistently exposed as the Phoenix defense allows. The scoring ended in the third period when Carter completed his hat trick, with another power play goal, fed by Dustin Brown and Kopitar. Los Angeles settled for eight shots in this period, although it’s safe to say everything was oriented to defense by that point.
What’s impressive is not just that Kings are dominating play so thoroughly, but throughout this postseason run they consistently get their production from the same players, and that group is broad enough to not be one-dimensional. Carter isn’t normally this big a part of the offense—well, since he had a hat trick last night, I guess that much is obvious, but you get the general point. But players like Kopitar, Brown, Penner and Doughty have been a part of the attack, either scoring or passing. More than any other team, Los Angeles has an offensive rhythm it can count on.
Phoenix can count on their offensive rhythm as well—count on it not to show up. Phoenix only got 24 shots on goal—which isn’t horrible, but nowhere near the volume they need to beat LA goalie Jonathan Quick. And more important, those aren’t quality shots. Three players were able to get four looks at the goal and two of the players in question were defensemen. Phoenix isn’t getting its best players in position to score, and while you can never write anything off to quickly, I defy anyone to come up with a single good reason why the Coyotes can win four of the next five and take the series. Heck, just come up with a good reason they’ll win two games (I won’t say one, because Smith could get them a W by himself at least once).
While Los Angeles dominates, the New York Rangers hope to win their second straight when the Eastern Conference Finals resumes tonight with Game 2 against the New Jersey Devils. I think New Jersey did a lot of what they needed to do to win in the opener, even if the third period went against them. But ultimately they need a little help. The Devils need Ranger goalie Henrik Lundqvist to have one of those games where he’s just a bit off—and they seem to happen at least every third game or so—and then NJ needs to lock down on Marian Gaborik and keep him off the puck.