It’s the Western Conference Final that everyone predicted! OK…well maybe not.
The Kings and Coyotes battled for the Pacific Division championship right down to the final game of the regular season, so there was no doubt that both teams could do some damage in the playoffs. But I think that few thought that these two teams would combine to eliminate the Canucks, Blues, Predators, and Blackhawks from post-season contention. That said, here we are just 4 weeks later and with puck drop just over 24 hours away, and it will be the Pacific Division that will face off for the right to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Final.In six games this season, the Kings finished up with a 3-1-2 record against the Coyotes. They scored 13 goals, the Coyotes scored 12; they had 2 Powerplay markers, the Coyotes had 4; they had 181 shots on goal, the Coyotes had 162. It’s clear from a statistical standpoint that these teams were evenly matched throughout the regular season and there’s no reason to think this series will be any different. Both teams will be entering unfamiliar territory Sunday, as the Kings have not been to the Western Conference Finals since 1993 and the Coyotes have never advanced this deep in the post-season. A trip to the Stanley Cup Finals would be a welcome change for both teams’ fan bases, who have spent their fair share of time cheering for basement dwelling teams.
So what is it going to take for the Kings to emerge victorious? Here are Monarchy Hockey’s keys to the Western Conference Finals.
1. There’s this thing called a Powerplay…
It’s far from a secret that the Kings’ powerplay has been bad this season. The team managed a 17% conversion rate throughout the regular season – not terrible, but they weren’t exactly the ’77-’78 Montreal Canadiens – and they have followed it up with a laughable 8.5% success rate this post-season. To say the team could stand to get the Powerplay going would be a vast understatement.
Phoenix is a team that finds majority of its success in 5-on-5 situations. The team has 22 5-on-5 goals in the playoffs, which is second only to the 24 netted by New Jersey. Meanwhile, the Kings have only managed to net 16 even strength goals in just one fewer game. It’s clear that neither team is going to set record setting totals in goals in this series, but with the Kings trailing the Coyotes in both 5-on-5 goals and powerplay success this post-season, it’s clear they could stand to have a but more offensive production with the man-advantage.
Looking back on last season’s playoffs, it’s true that Boston had one of the worst powerplays throughout its run to the Cup. They managed an 11.4% conversion rate, scoring on 10 of 88 opportunities. The difference is, the Bruins had the 5-on-5 scoring to make up for it, the Kings may not be able to score to quite the same level. Thus far, poor play with the man-advantage hasn’t hindered the Kings much, after all they managed to dispatch of both the #1 and #2 seeds in just 9 games, so it’s entirely possible that LA will still be able to succeed this post-season with an anemic powerplay unit. But I don’t think anyone is going to argue that things would be a lot easier if they were able to take advantage of a few more of their opportunities with the man-advantage.
2. Let’s be honest, it’s been a while…
The Western Conference Semi-Finals were a short sprint compared to the series the Capitals and Rangers are currently engaged in. The Kings and Coyotes managed to dispatch of their opponents in 4 and 5 games respectively, and have had to wait for some time before being able to get the next round of their playoff journey started. Luckily, both teams are in similar situations as the Coyotes last played on Monday and the Kings have not seen action since Sunday of last week. It’s not exactly an ideal situation for either team, but it doesn’t provide either side with an advantage either.
There are certainly benefits to the long break these teams have been mired in. Post-season hockey is often described as a marathon rather than a sprint, and both Phoenix and LA could certainly use the time to rest and work on healing any lingering aches and pains. But there is also an inherent downside to having this much time off, as players can often lose their focus and teams no longer have the benefit of any momentum they may have built in their first and second round series wins. As I mentioned earlier, the Kings and Coyotes are luck in the sense that they have both been off for a significant period, the situation could cause greater problems for the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference Finals.
A key to this series will be finding a way to get back into playoff mode quickly. The Kings won Game 1 in both the first and second round thus far and have had the benefit of leading each series for the duration. It would certainly help if they start out the same way against Phoenix, but there is no doubt that the Coyotes will be looking to rope the same advantage. Game 1 will be key in setting the tone for the rest of the series, whichever team is able to get back into the playoff mindset quickest will have a decided advantage over its opponent.
3. Hey, this guy is pretty good!
Mike Smith has been a pleasant surprise for the Coyotes this season. After a stellar regular season Smith has seen his success continue this post season, taking Phoenix further into the post-season than they have ever been either as the Coyotes or the Jets. In 11 games thus far, Smith has turned aside 379 of 400 shots, boasting a 1.77 GAA and a .948 save-percentage, and he has no doubt been the key in many of Phoenix’s victories. At the other end of the ice we have Jonathan Quick, Vezina candidate. Quick has turned aside 260 of 274 shots, put up a 1.55 GAA and a .949 save-percentage. Both goalies have been outstanding, their continued strong play will be key for their team’s success.
Mike Smith is a big goalie. He is strong on his skates, he can move well, and he’s not afraid to use his body to clear the crease. But Smith has also been known to have a bit of a temper and can lose his focus from time to time, like most goalies he doesn’t take too kindly to players that he feels get a little too up close and personal. If the Kings are going to find success against Smith, they are going to have to need to send waves of traffic to the net on each play in an attempt to get Smith off his game. Granted, this is the key to succeeding against most NHL goaltenders, but the book on Smith says he may be a little more susceptible to to losing his focus than some of the other elite goaltenders out there. The Kings have the big bodies necessary to play this sort of a game with the Coyotes, whether they put them to use in the proper way will be up to them.
It’s going to be another exciting series for Kings fans, with a Stanley Cup Final birth on the line. This incarnation of the Los Angeles Kings is bordering on being the best of all time and a number of pundits now have the Kings pegged as the Stanley Cup favourites. Let’s hope the team doesn’t believe their own hype just yet though – they still have a very talented in the Coyotes team to beat before they can start thinking about all-time greatness. Enjoy the games!