Western Conference Finals Preview
The theme of the 2012 Western Conference finals has to be "out with the old; in with the new." Anybody who questions that mantra need only to look up the combined conference finals berths in the (relatively short) histories of the Phoenix Coyotes and Los Angeles Kings. That total would be one — achieved by the 1993 Kings starring Wayne Gretzky. But that was so long ago that the team the Kings defeated in the conference finals, the Toronto Maple Leafs, are now in the Eastern Conference. (The Kings lost in the Stanley Cup Finals to the great Patrick Roy and the Montreal Canadiens in five games.) This year, in fact, marks the first time in the 15 seasons the Coyotes have spent in Phoenix that they actually won a playoff series. (As the Winnipeg Jets, the franchise won three World Hockey Association titles but, since joining the NHL for the 1979-80 season, only won two playoff series before moving to Phoenix — and never reached the Campbell/Western Conference finals.
OK, enough history… these two teams are really good. They're the top two defensive teams in the playoffs (in terms of goals allowed per game) and two of the best on the penalty kill. The Kings are slightly better offensively (averaging three goals per game, compared to the Coyotes' 2.64), but have a much worse power play (8.5 percent effective, compared to 16.1 percent for Phoenix).
In the conference semifinals, both teams were able to coax their opponent into playing their style. But, against each other, there won't be any surprises. They split six meetings this season and all but one was decided by a one-goal margin. The Coyotes (97 points) finished just two points ahead of L.A. (95) in the regular season, and the Pacific Division titles wasn't decided before the closing days of the season.
With every game expected to be so close, the margin of error will be slim. L.A. netminder Jonathan Quick (a finalist for the Vezina Trophy for top goalie) has the edge over the Coyotes' Mike Smith. Quick has matured quickly into one of the top goalies in the league, while Smith — who is four years older than Quick — is enjoying a career year after wallowing with the Tampa Bay Lightning for the last four seasons.
The Kings also have the edge on offense — with 27-year-old captain Dustin Brown (six goals, five assists in just nine games) — leading the way. He's fourth in the league in playoff scoring despite playing fewer games than the other leaders. Helping Brown is veteran Anze Kopitar (three goals, seven assists), who is in his sixth season with the Kings despite only being 24 years-old. Mike Richards, 27, has been huge in his first season on the West Coast since his somewhat-surprising trade from Philadelphia during the off-season.
The Coyotes are led by a rejuvenated Antoine Vermette, who was acquired by Phoenix from Columbus on Feb. 22 and has almost equaled his regular-season point total (three goals, seven assists in 22 games) already in the playoffs (five goals, four assists in 11 games). Thirty-five-year-old captain Shane Doane (three goals, three assists), who has spent his entire career with the franchise, is still going strong.
The teams' defensemen are pretty much a group of unsung heroes, with the Kings' Drew Doughty being the biggest name. But, as you can tell by the stats, they are good at keeping opponents off the scoreboard and helping the rest of the team dictate play.
With the Kings holding an edge (albeit a slight one) in every category — save for maybe special teams — and buzzing through the top two teams in the conference with just one loss in nine games, it's hard to say anything other than "I Love L.A." The Kings are just too hot, too skilled, and too much on a roll to pick against. So why try?
Prediction: Kings in six games.