|The teams split the season series three wins apiece. (Getty Images)|
To paraphrase the great Anthony Kiedis, the sun may rise in the East but at least it settles in a finer location.
Maybe the Red Hot Chili Peppers front man was onto more than he thought in his ode to his home state of California. Because the line from Californication serves aptly to describe the Western Conference in the NHL this year too. (On a side note, am I the only one that thinks the song should be "finer" instead of "final" location anyways?)
All season long the best hockey in the conference was being played in the Central Division. It was one of the very best divisions we've seen in the NHL since they went to the six-division format. I'd argue -- wait, I DID argue -- it was the best with the exception of the Atlantic Division this season.
Yet now, when it matters most, the four Central Division teams that made the postseason have been vanquished and the only two teams left, the Los Angeles Kings and Phoenix Coyotes, are from the Pacific. The division that, if it weren't for the Southeast, would have been criticized a bit more for not having a strong team. You'll remember that with two weeks to go there was not one team in the division that appeared to be a lock to make the playoffs.
But now as the sun sets on the Western Conference in the playoffs, we have the two far West foes. And nobody would dare say they don't deserve where they are now. Maybe you look at the records and their seeds and you think it might be a fluke, but the Kings and Coyotes have been the best two teams in the playoffs, hands down.
There are great stories galore. The Kings are the first team to ever take out a No. 1 and No. 2 seed in the same postseason. Now they can take out the No. 3. Jonathan Quick remains excellent, Dustin Brown is having a whale of a postseason, Dustin Penner has found new life, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter are making L.A. a winner, and on and on it goes.
The Coyotes have their similar share of stories: The ongoing sale hanging over their heads, making it this far to go where no other Coyotes/Jets team has gone before, the stellar play of Mike Smith, Shane Doan enjoying the fruits of many, many years of labor. So on and so forth.
But the individual stories don't mean a whole lot now, obviously. It's how they are going to fit against one another.
Here's something to think about. Since Raffi Torres was suspended 25 games for his hit on Marian Hossa in the first round of the playoffs, the Coyotes haven't missed him too much. Torres gets a lot of guff -- rightfully, in my opinion -- for the way he plays, but he is clearly very physical and does bring some skill to the table too.
So will the goaltenders. They figure to put on an absolute show this series. The winner will have the way inside track on the Conn Smythe Trophy.
PHO Offense vs. LA Defense
The Coyotes don't make their living on offense. They're leading scorer in the playoffs is Antoine Vermette with five goals and four assists. Besides him only Mikkel Boedker and Rostislav Klesla are top 30 in playoff scoring. But all postseason long they have been getting what they need to the tune of 2.64 goals per game despite the fewest shots per game.
The Kings defense has been and still is stout. Of course they look better with Quick behind them, but they do their part to help him out plenty, too. They have been very stingy through two rounds, allowing just 1.56 goals against per game.
LA Offense vs. PHO Defense
The Kings offense has improved dramatically from where it was during the season. Before the playoffs began there's zero doubt this category is going to the Coyotes, but not now. L.A. has found offense and then some. Even though he hasn't been racking up a ton of points, it has all coincided with Jeff Carter's arrival. But Brown and Anze Kopitar especially have been at their absolute best.
Like L.A., Phoenix's numbers as a whole are very good, and a lot of that credit goes to Smith in the back. The Coyotes give up a lot of shots -- 36.4 per game in the postseason, well more than any other team -- but do a good job of keeping them out of the scoring zones for the most part. They aren't afraid to let the other team play the puck-possession game, they are patient in their own end and use it to spring out and surprise.
Flat out, it doesn't get better than this. The argument can be made that these are the two best goaltenders in the NHL. What really can't be disputed is that there is no goalie playing better than either of them at the moment. They have each been absurdly good.
In the end, this is what makes this series so tough to predict, because either goalie can -- and one surely will -- carry their team in this series. Smith has been doing it through two rounds already while Quick has done his part but received a little more help, unlike the regular season for him.
Of course, now that we're expecting every game to be 0-0 going into the third overtime, you can probably take it to the bank that each game will be high scoring.
If the Kings have had one problem this postseason, it's been scoring on the power play. They are only 4-for-47 with the man advantage, well below the pace they had in the regular season. Phoenix is chugging along at a pace pretty consistent with the regular season, converting on 5 of 31 attempts. That is a pretty large discrepancy in opportunities, especially considering the Coyotes played two more games than the Kings.
Of course both penalty kills have been stellar, so in this department they are pretty much a wash. (Are you noticing the trend here that when it comes to defensive numbers, these teams are pretty good?)
I would give the Coyotes a slight nod but I anticipate at some point here in the postseason the Kings will convert a bit more on the PP, we know they are capable.