Western Conference Final preview: Coyotes (3) vs. Kings (8)
Jonathan Quick and Mike Smith will be a dream match-up of goaltenders
Taking advantage of a bounce or one power play could be enough to win
The special teams battle could be decided by the club that's a man down
Regular season series: Kings win 3-1-2
Key Injuries: Los Angeles -- LW Simon Gagne (concussion, injured reserve), LW Scott Parse (hip, day-to-day); Phoenix -- none
Snapshot: Once you get past the frisson of excitement created by a pair of unlikely franchises making rare appearances in the conference finals -- the second for Los Angeles, first ever for Phoenix -- and the glamour of playoff hockey set among the palm trees and cacti, what do you have? A series that's set to play out like a bellycrawl under a mile of low-slung barbed wire.
If Vegas were to set the nightly line at 1, you couldn't blame some folks for taking their chances on the under. Defense, and a slavish devotion to it up and down the roster, is what powered the surprising ascent of both the Kings and the Coyotes. It's the quality that will define what should be a tense, next-goal-wins conflict.
Start with the netminders. Jonathan Quick and Mike Smith give us a dream match-up of the two best stoppers of the postseason, and a possible USA vs. Canada Olympic preview, to boot. Both have all-world numbers: Quick is 8-1 with a 1.55 GAA and .949 save percentage; Smith is 8-3, 1.70 and .948. A bounce and a bit of good fortune will go a lot farther than highlight-reel skill against these two.
Each goalie is guarded by an unheralded but highly competent defense corps led by a young, minute-munching, two-way hot shot (Drew Doughty of the Kings; Oliver Ekman-Larsson of the Coyotes) and backed by quietly efficient veterans who clog up the middle and eschew personal safety in exchange for allowing low-risk, high visibility shots from distance.
The only real point of separation might be up front. Both forward groups believe in creating offense from sound defense, but the Kings have a little more flair at their disposal. As a result, they've been the more consistent scorers, averaging three goals per game (one reason for that I'll explain later) to 2.64 by Phoenix. Dustin Brown (6-5-11) has been the most consistent forward in the playoffs and Anze Kopitar finally seems to be embracing his moment. They've both been fantastic. Flyers castaways Mike Richards and Jeff Carter have been effective, if not overly so, but they've unleashed the kraken in Dustin Penner. If he continues to drive the net with purpose, he'll cause a mountainous headache for Smith down low.
Meanwhile, the Coyotes have been scoring by committee, getting a surprising turn from deadline acquisition Antoine Vermette ( 5-4-9) and an eye-opening performance full of grit and flash from Mikkel Boedker. Shane Doan was pivotal in the Game 4 and 5 wins against Nashville thanks to his physical presence, but he, Ray Whitney and Martin Hanzal must provide more pop, especially when matched up against Brown's line.
Spotlight's on: Kings power play. As the unlikely glory of the 2011 Boston Bruins proved, an aspiring champ needs a clicking power play about as much as it needs a quirky national anthem singer. That the B's won it all with an abysmal 11.4 percent success rate, the worst by far of any team that advanced past the first round, should help soothe concerns about the anemic 8.5 percent of the time that L.A. has connected with the extra man.
But that doesn't take the unit off the hook, especially in a series where taking advantage of even a single opportunity might be enough to turn the tide. Going 1-for-21 worked against the Blues' Brian Elliott because of the ability of the Kings to expose him at five-on-five. Smith won't be as accommodating at even strength, so getting big bodies down low and looking for deflections and rebounds -- not the slick set-up for a pretty one-timer -- could turn L.A.'s power play into a difference-maker.
X-Factor for the Coyotes: Radim Vrbata. Not to downplay the role of secondary scoring, but a little more finish from their primary sniper is exactly what the Coyotes need right about now. After leading the team with 35 goals in a breakout regular season, Vrbata has just two through 11 postseason contests. Factor in just two assists and his minus-2 rating and well, if he's not a passenger, he's sure not paying for gas.
Vrbata's always been more effective during the regular season than the playoffs, and it seems likely that he's fighting through some sort of injury (the lack of pop on his shot suggests it's his shoulder), but the Coyotes can't rely on the offensive heroics of Rusty Klesla forever. Vrbata has to make himself a factor.
X-Factor for the Kings: Their fourth line. Both coaches have demonstrated faith in their bottom-six forwards by giving them key minutes at critical junctures through the first two rounds, so reliable depth has been a big part of their early success. Phoenix's group is more experienced, but the size and youthful energy of the Kings might give their fourth line a noteworthy edge. Their forecheck was effective at keeping the Blues hemmed in their own zone and it created the turnovers that the Kings will need to generate real chances against Smith. They've scored some timely goals long the way, too, so don't be surprised to see coach Darryl Sutter tap them to provide a spark if the frontliners can't get the power play jumping.
Point To Ponder: The special teams battle could be decided by the club that's playing a man down. The Kings have four shorthanded goals through their first nine games (two for Brown). The Coyotes have yet to score one.
The Pick: There's not much to separate the two teams, but the Kings have taken down the west's top two seeds in convincing fashion. How do you argue against that?
Los Angeles in six.
SI's Michael Farber offers his take on the Coyotes-Kings showdown for the conference crown.
SI Now: Should NCAA Student Athletes be treated as pros?
SI Now: What role will Tim Tebow fill for the Patriots?