Western Conference Final preview: Coyotes (3) vs. Kings (8)
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.
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.
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.
Los Angeles in six.