The Los Angeles Kings are headed to the NHL Western Conference Finals for the second year in a row. This journey to the top of the West is a much different climb than the feverish ascension the team made last year en-route to winning the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
I have spent many nights staying up until the wee hours watching this team attempt to repeat as champions–a special thanks NHL for the 7:30 p.m. start times in the playoffs (sidenote: This is clearly the most mismanaged league of all the major four sports. The NBA understands that TV ratings are what make the league more money so when the Lakers are playing in the playoffs, they bump the start time up to make it slightly more convenient for fans out east. The traffic is a bitch in LA, and natives whine but they are in Staples for the 6 p.m. start. Get with it NHL, for my sake). I must say this is a completely different experience for the LA faithful.
The Kings have to scrap through games and series as a whole. They are losing on the road and flawless at home. For a fan base that watched last year’s pure domination throughout the playoffs, this postseason may be a bit of a nail biter.
Fear not, Kings fans. This team is still in position to challenge to be one of the first repeat Stanley Cup Champions since the Red Wings did it in the late 90’s. Here are the 3 things I’ve seen from the Kings this playoffs that will help lead them to hoisting the cup once again:
1. Jonathan Quick is still the best in the NHL between the pipes
- Jonny Quick had a rough regular season. The back surgery he had after the playoffs last year slowed him down and not having access to Kings trainers during the lockout certainly did not help either. He played well enough to position the boys in black as a 4 seed this year but did not really hit his stride until April.
- This playoffs Quick is leading all goalies with an absurd .948 save percentage and an equally impressive 1.50 goals against average. He is the same pipe to pipe butterfly expert that we saw last season and it’s making oppositions frustrated. During the Blues series and even more so during this last series with the Sharks, forwards tried everything in their power to throw Quick off his game. Coach Sutter, usually reserved during postgame interviews, spent some quality time with reporters chatting about how poor a job the referees were doing protecting his goalkeeper. Watching Game 7 last night, you can see that the strategy teams have in going against Quick is make a physical presence known in front of the net. Forwards rush from the wings and do their best to force Jonny to flinch. Somehow, Quick has managed to maintain eyes on the puck and keep opponent from reaching the back of the net.
2. Daryl Sutter knows how to shuffle lineups to his advantage
- One of the things lost in last year’s Cup run was how great Coach Sutter is at personnel management. Last year, he largely kept all four of his lines intact. He did not have any major injuries during any of the series and had no problem throwing his hot team back out unchanged every game. This year, the Kings have seen their bench thin during the playoffs. No injury has more potential to derail the Kings chances than the concussion to Jarret Stoll. The co-captain during last year’s run, Stoll is a center who is a face-off expert and a true leader on this still-young squad. He was injured in the first game against the Sharks and is uncertain to return.
- Sutter was fortunate that as Stoll went down, Kings defenseman Matt Greene was just returning to form after being injured the first week of this season and missing the entire year. Coach Sutter pulled Greeney aside and told him he needed him to take over some of the load that his injured center Stoll was carrying. Greene, once a center a few years back, spent hours watching tape on the face-offs for the Sharks and helped slightly slow the massive advantage San Jose had off the draw in the series.
- Coach has also found two new spark plugs in Jake Muzzin and Tyler Toffoli. Both players had limited experience in the league and are trying to invigorate the 3rd and 4th lines the same way Slava Voynov did last year. The one thing that Coach Sutter has proved to his team this offseason is that if you don’t play high energy, defense first, physical hockey, you are not going to play. Period.
3. The Kings are tenacious
- In the Blues series the Kings lost the first two games in horrendous fashion. The beginning of the series was best personified by Quick’s misplay of a puck in overtime that led to a Blues short-handed game-winning goal. Weaker squads would have shut down after a loss like that. Instead, the Kings personified their stoic coach. They didn’t panic, they got back to the basics, and they turned the series around. When this team is up against the wall, they focus up. They protect the 10 feet in front of Quick with their bodies. They smash approaching forwards with strong fore-checks. Most importantly, they find a way to win.
I will be rooting for the Red Wings tonight in their game 7. The list of things that worry me about this Kings squad is just as long as what I like about them. However, as long as the top 3 items I listed above hold true, LA should be able to handle whatever comes their way.