By Stu Hackel
We move to the playoffs' third round on Sunday, and anyone who tells you they predicted before the postseason began that the Coyotes and Kings would meet for a chance to advance to the Stanley Cup Final should not be trusted. But here they are, two unlikely foes that have both peaked at the right time, knocked off favored opponents, gotten timely scoring, and thrived on defense and stellar goaltending. Any team that combines those elements belongs in a conference championship series.
PHOENIX COYOTES (3) vs. LOS ANGLES KINGS (8)
Coyotes -- What they did right in the second round: Playing with outstanding structure and showing phenomenal discipline, the Coyotes needed only five games to easily dispatch a Nashville team that some believed was destined to hoist the Cup in June. Internal problems didn't help the Predators' cause, but Coyotes coach Dave Tippett prepared his club well and it continued to play the style that got it past the Blackhawks in the first round. That involves keeping quality scoring chances to a minimum, relying on Mike Smith (who was better than Pekka Rinne) to make saves, preventing second chance opportunities, patiently waiting for the opposition to make mistakes and then capitalizing on them. Captain Shane Doan and Martin Hanzal each had two goals and two assists in the five games and Antoine Vermette had a goal and three assists.
The Phoenix defense corps, not known as big point producers, now boasts the top two scorers among D-men in the playoffs: Keith Yandle and Rusty Klesla (tied with the Rangers' Dan Girardi). However, their play without the puck has been devastating. They don't give up many odd man rushes and no matter where the Predators had the puck on the ice, the Coyotes were ready for them with layers of defenders to beat before they could get to the net or get off a shot. The Coyotes are not overly physical, they don't play a mayhem-inducing game like the Flyers, but they're not soft either. They just know where to be and don't easily let you get through them.
Tippett has a team full of guys who aren't flashy but they do lots of fundamental things well, from Boyd Gordon's excellent work on face-offs, to the speed of Mikkel Boedker and Vermette, to the excellent two-way play of Hanzal, to the well-rounded game of Oliver Ekman-Larsson, to name a few. Most impressive was their penalty kill against the Preds, who had the best power play in the league during the regular season. Led by Gordon and Lauri Korpikoski, Phoenix didn't allow a power play goal in the last three games of the series and none on the road. In fact, the Coyotes have not surrendered a power play goal on the road in the playoffs, helping to take those crowds out of games.
What they need to improve: As in their series against Chicago, the Coyotes still had some trouble keeping the Predators off the scoreboard late in games. They've surrendered nine third period goals through two rounds, as many as the Penguins and only one fewer than the Flyers and Capitals.
What they’ll need to do to win this round: The Coyotes will have to be more consistent in keeping the Kings away from Smith. The Kings have more high-skilled forwards than the Predators and the Coyotes can't continue to allow their foes to force Smith to make 30-plus saves every game. They'll have to improve their play late in games when they have a lead and figure out a way to neutralize the most important Kings: Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty. But they won't be making too many major adjustments. They'll want to play the same game they've played in the last two rounds. It's worked so far.
Kings — What they did right the second round: In sweeping the Blues, Los Angeles dominated the tempo and flow of their games. They surged at the right times, especially shorthanded, and got excellent goaltending from Jonathan Quick who, through the first two rounds, convinced many people that he could be the best goaltender in the game right now. The Kings got strong play from all four lines, led by their top threesome of Dustin Brown (2 goals, 4 assists against the Blues), Kopitar and Justin Williams. Drew Doughty really stepped up his game and was the series' most dominant player. Kopitar (the most underappreciated star in the NHL) with Mike Richards, Jarret Stoll and Colin Fraser, gives L.A. a physically impressive group of centers and their play was contagious as the Kings' overall physical game subdued St. Louis at every turn.
Under coach Darryl Sutter, L.A. keeps it simple: Win the battles in front of your net, in front of the other team's net and along the boards, and play with pace. The Kings have a good leader in their captain Brown, who could be the most tenacious forechecker in the NHL. Like him, the forwards in general combine physical play with very good skill.
Doughty led a defense corps that may have surprised the Blues with its mobility. Rookie Slava Voynov is quick and smart, Alex Martinez has had a strong two rounds for a young player, and Matt Greene, Willie Mitchell and Rob Scuderi, a trio of rugged, old school blueliners, are not pylons out there the way rugged, old school blueliners once were.
What they need to improve: While the strength of the Kings' game is playing at full strength, they had only one power play goal against the Blues and, with Phoenix's penalty kill so strong, it's an area that could lead to frustration. And because of their physical nature, the Kings can take some bad penalties.Their PK through two rounds has been even better than the Coyotes', but they still would be better off staying out of the box.
What they’ll need to do to win this round: The Kings are going to have to play an intelligent game. It won't be about dialing back their physicality as much as trying not to be over-aggressive and outmuscle the Coyotes. Phoenix is so smart and tactically aware that if the Kings open up against them, the Coyotes will exploit the holes in their defensive coverage. The way Los Angeles executes its physical play could be a deciding factor in this match between nasty Dogs and funky Kings.
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