(Que-Ese is struggling with computer difficulties, so I’m posting on his behalf. Skynet is taking over)
Well folks, here we are. The Kings are who we thought they are and even better than I thought they could ever be against the Blues. Turning in the most impressive playoff series in franchise history, the Kings are playing the best hockey in the NHL right now.
The Blues were supposed to be a team built similarly to the Kings in every way; Strong defense, stronger goal keeping, and timely scoring. And yet, the surge that is Dustin Brown’s epic playoff physicality once again set the tone of a suddenly confident hockey club.
To put it simply, the Kings got Swag.
Now we turn out attention to Phoenix, a team who arguably is playing the second best hockey during these playoffs (sorry Eastern Conference, I’m a Pacific Division homer). They are doing so largely on the back of their goaltender and solid scoring from players all the way down their bench. Sound familiar? That’s because even though the Kings and Blues were similar on paper, the Kings and Coyotes have gotten to the Western Conference Finals by playing almost identical hockey.
Let’s do a quick comparison for those not watching the last few weeks.
Kings Goalie Jonathan Quick – 1.55 GAA, .949 Save Percentage, 9 games, 274 Shots
Coyotes Goalie Mike Smith – 1.77 GAA, .948 Save Percentage, 11 games, 400 Shots
15 players with at least one goal for the Kings
13 players with at least one goal for the Coyotes
This is obviously not the most comprehensive comparison but it certainly proves the point that both teams are succeeding under similar formulas. The Kings beat down the Canucks using an aggressive fore-check. The same strategy was employed effectively by the quick Defensemen for the Coyotes against Nashville.
The Coyotes even have many personal ties to the LA Kings. Their coach, Dave Tippett, was an assistant coach with LA under Andy Murray. The Coyotes backup goalie, Jason LaBarbera, used to don the black and white, and Kings assistant general manager Ron Hextall’s son got called up from the AHL to practice with the Coyotes.
Point being, this series is going to be close and its going to ratchet the intensity up a whole lot. My three keys to the upcoming games:
1. DE-FENSE, DE-FENSE
Phoenix has guys like Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle, who Jonathan Quick has called “very skilled defensemen who like jumping up in the rush.” These are the kind of players the Kings have not faced thus far in the playoffs. The Coyotes will rely strongly on Yandle to create from the back, taking advantage any offensive pressure the Kings apply.
That being said, I still think that LA’s defensive group will wind up winning this series. Slava Voynov has been playing well beyond his capabilities and Willie Mitchell is playing about 20 years younger than his birth certificate. That pairing, along with the seasoned playoff experience of Rob Scuderi (2009 Penguins Cup winner) and a rejuvenated Dustin Penner (granted, not a defenseman, but all of a sudden the enforcer we all have been looking for, and a spark on the new second line of Penner-Richards-Carter) point to a slight advantage for the Kings.
2. THE BIG MO
The Kings have never been here before. This is the farthest a Kings team has been since the days of Gretzky. Yes, that team was in the Stanley Cup Finals, but those same finals used to be the third round. As the rag-tag assortment of youngsters and old farm hands (see Jeff Carter, Willie Mitchell) come off almost a week of rest, can they continue the momentum they gained from a series sweep?
The biggest question mark for me is going to be answered minutes into this series. Can oh-captain-my-captain Dustin Brown fire up the boys who have been playing over their heads with reckless abandon the last 9 games? If not, the swagger the Kings have built up over the last two series will very quickly evaporate. Thoughts of the inconsistent Kings of old can very quickly creep into the collective minds of true Kings fans (you know, the ones who watched some games before the playoffs began) and can derail ambitions of finally returning Lord Stanley to his rightful home, Los Angeles?
3. PK AND THE POWER PLAY
The Kings were successful on one of their 21 power plays against St. Louis. With a man advantage, the Kings just couldn’t find the back of the net. They made up for this horrible statistic by scoring two shorthanded goals and killing all 17 disadvantages.
Yes, everyone points to special teams as an important factor in the playoffs but they do so for a reason. The shorthanded goals scored by the Kings in their last two series completely floored their opponents and shifted momentum to the streaking underdogs. A great man once told me, “You have to play three assets of the game gentlemen. You have to win offense, defense, but most importantly, you have to win special teams… Gentlemen let the Eagle fly.”
That inspiring quote aside, if Radim Vrbata finds his stroke (only two goals this postseason) on the power play, the Kings may be in trouble.
I’m making the same guess I made last series: Kings win in six. I am hoping my juju will continue propelling this team towards the Finals (clearly I had a lot to do with it) and I will most certainly be watching every game from the same spot on my couch in my Kings sweater next to little Que-Ese.
The series may start on Sunday night in Phoenix and heres hoping the Kings get their first chance at the Cup in almost a decade. I also hope that NBC figures out how to play west coast games at a reasonable time for us ex-pats living on the Beast coast. Go Kings Go.