The NHL's Western Conference Finals kick off Sunday at Jobing.com Arena in Glendale, and a familiar foe will be in the building. The Phoenix Coyotes will be taking on their Pacific Division rival, the Los Angeles Kings, with a berth in the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals up for grabs.
How They Got Here
While no one could have predicted the eighth-seed Kings would be taking on, what most saw, as the weakest division winner in the Coyotes, both teams have proved that they belong in the Western Conference Finals.
The Coyotes dispatched a young and talented squad in the Chicago Blackhawks in six games in the first round, and then sent the Nashville Predators to the golf course in five games in the second round.
The Kings have also impressed this postseason. Los Angles took out the Vancouver Canucks, the defending West champions and winner of consecutive Presidents' trophies, in five games, while also chasing goalie Roberto Luongo to the bench.
The Kings would then complete an equally impressive task in the second round, sweeping the Central Division champion St. Louis Blues. The sweep was the first in franchise history.
The success of these two teams in the playoffs has proven that the Pacific Division had more to offer than most thought. The Central Division was thought to be the strongest division in the West, sending four of five teams to the postseason. However, the point totals may have been inflated because of the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets dwelling in the basement of the division and the NHL.
While the Coyotes were the only division winner with less than 100 points, the Pacific was the only division in the NHL with three teams over 90 points and none with less than 80.
Game 5 of the season series was probably the most memorable and showed the disdain the teams have for one another.
The fireworks started early as captains =Shane Doan and Dustin Brown would drop the gloves at center ice less than five minutes into the game. A series of other fights and penalties would then follow, leading to more than 40 minutes of penalties in the first period alone. The Coyotes would end up winning a close game 1-0.
The teams split their season series, with the Kings winning two of the games in overtime and the Coyotes taking one in a shootout. Radim Vrbata was the top scorer for the 'Yotes against the Kings with five goals and two assist, while the Kings captain Brown did the most damage for L.A. with three goals and two assist.
Coyotes defenseman Keith Yandle is excited for the matchup.
"I thought our games we played with them in the regular season were playoff-type games. We played hard; there were a lot of fights, guys playing hard. I remember when we finished those games you talk amongst the guys and you're saying it's a playoff-type game. So, it's a good thing that we got matched-up with them and are able to play them because it's going to be a fun series."
What To Watch For
Battle Between The Pipes: Jonathan Quick And Mike Smith
It's impossible to talk about this series without comparing these two goalies who have easily been the MVP for their teams in the playoffs.
Vezina Trophy candidate Quick leads all goalies in the playoffs with a 1.55 goals against average and .949 save percentage.
Smith has been no slouch either. This postseason Smith has stopped an astounding 229 shots and posted an NHL-high two shutouts.
Predators Coach Barry Trotz may have had the best quote to describe the play of Smith this postseason saying, "In the end, we had enough chances to win this series, but we didn't win. We couldn't bury anything past Smith."
Depth Vs. Depth: Can The Coyotes Defense Slow Down The Kings Offense
Both teams play a punishing, defensive style of hockey that relies strongly on goaltending, but it's no secret that the Kings hold the edge on the offensive end.
14 different players have scored this postseason for the Kings, which means all their lines are rolling. Brown and Anze Kopitar have combined for 21 points this postseason, while Justin Williams, Mike Richards and noted pancake connoisseur Dustin Penner have all been contributors in the offensive end.
Picking up Jeff Carter at the trade deadline did not hurt either.
However, the Coyotes defense has taken huge strides in the postseason. The Coyotes are averaging just over 17 blocked shots a game, and have been forced to show off their depth.
Every Coyote defenseman is averaging over 20 minutes of ice time per game, with the exception of 20-year-old Oliver Ekman-Larsson who is averaging 26 minutes.
Smith has seen the difference in his defense saying, "I think we've gotten more confident playing with the puck. Early in the playoffs we didn't want it so much. We got it and got rid of it, I think as we got deeper in the playoffs our ‘D' got more comfortable playing with it, playing with the puck, being more poised with it and started to make a lot more plays with it."
The Battle At Center: Anze Kopitar Vs. Martin Hanzal
Hanzal is not only the Coyotes number one center, but also their leading hitter in the playoffs. Standing at 6' 6" and 236 lbs, Hanzal has the definite size advantage. Kopitar is three inches shorter and ten pounds lighter, but is known for his quick hands rather than physical play.
Hanzal will have to slow down Kopitar, the Kings second leading scorer in the playoffs, if the Coyotes hope to disrupt the Kings potent offense.
Coach Dave Tippett is sure to have Hanzal out there as much as possible against Kopitar, so he can use his big body to wear down the shifty center.
The Word Around The Rink
Goaltender Mike Smith On playing LA: "They're a deep team with a really good goaltender. They play their system to a tee. So, it's going to be another tough test for our club."
Captain Shane Doan On Kings Captain Dustin Brown: "He's probably been the best forward, the best player. You look at (goaltender Jonathan) Quick, and you look at Smitty (Mike Smith), the goaltenders, they always rule the playoffs. But outside, as a player, he's probably been the best player in the playoffs. It's been fun to watch, it's going to be really fun to compete against him, for sure. I mean, you look forward to that."
Forward Boyd Gordon On LA: "They're a similar hockey team to what we are. Same kind of style, have great goaltending, they're strong on the back. They've got some skill guys that can put the puck in the net. So, I think we're going to have to be, obviously like I said, on top of our game if we want to come out on top."
Forward Antoine Vermette On playing a division rival in the postseason: "Its tight games. Even with the points, too, in the regular season. Looking at the standings, they mean so much. They've been in that playoff mode for a long time, and the same thing for us. We've played some hard hockey throughout the last couple of months of the season. So, it's going to be fun. We've played a lot against these guys for the most part, I was a new addition towards the end, so I don't know as much as most of the guys in here, but definitely when you play a divisional opponent you raise your game and raise your intensity."
- Rostislav Klesla and Keith Yandle are one and two in scoring by a defenseman in the playoffs. Klesla has put up two goals and five assist, and Yandle has seven helpers.
- The Kings have yet to lose a game on the road, something essential for an eighth seed. The Kings have gone 5-0 this postseason away from home.
- Los Angeles has three shorthanded goals this postseason so far. Brown has two of them, and Kopitar the other. They only had nine during the entire regular season.
- Vermette has three power play goals this postseason. Phoenix has only scored five in the playoffs. He has also scored five goals on only 17 shots, a scoring just over 30 percent of the time he shoots.
- Every Los Angeles defender has a plus-rating in the playoffs, led by Willie Mitchell at plus-6.
- Neither team has found converted on a consistent basis while on the power play. The Coyotes have gone 5-for-31, while the Kings have only scored only four goals on 47 chances.
- The Kings have played only two games that were decided by one goal, both against Vancouver. The cardiac Coyotes have played in eight, six of those being decided in overtime.
While the Kings are on a historic run of their own, the Coyotes have been the story of the NHL this year. The Coyotes won their first Pacific Division title, playoff series and now are in their first ever conference final.
The Coyotes, a team with no superstars or ownership, has managed to knock off two of the most talented laden rosters in hockey and have demonstrated what pack mentality truly is.
With the White Out behind them for the first two games of the series, I would not be surprised to see the Coyotes going into L.A. with a two-game lead.
When two teams know each other as well as these two do it's always a toss up, but betting against the Coyotes seems like an awful idea.
Prediction: Coyotes win in seven
Game 1 will take place Sunday, May 13th at 5 PM PT, 8 PM ET, and will be broadcast on the NBC Sports Network (TSN/RDS in Canada).
Game 2 will take place Tuesday, May 15th at 6 PM PT, 9 PM ET, and will be broadcast on the NBC Sports Network (TSN/RDS in Canada)
Discuss the Kings being in the Western Conference Finals with Jewels From The Crown (our LA Kings SB Nation NHL site), and talk about the Coyotes making it at Five For Howling (our Phoenix SB Nation NHL site)