By Stu Hackel
It's still a good month before the captain of an NHL team hoists the Stanley Cup over his head and a lot can happen between now and then. But on the basis of the first three games in the Conference Championship round, there is no more impressive team at this moment than the Los Angeles Kings.
This isn't to say that the Coyotes are dead desert dogs -- although they have their tongues hanging out and are panting heavily. Nor is it to say the Devils or Rangers are destined to fall to LA, regardless of which one wins the east -- although if the Kings get out of their series in four or five and the Devs and Blueshirts go the limit and the winner gets battered, the Cup in California would be a possible scenario. And who knows what might happen to the Kings along the way? What injuries might they suffer, what puck luck might they not get? What will the hockey gods rain down upon them before the guys with the white gloves carry the Cup onto the ice for the presentation?
But at this moment, the Kings -- who are 35-14-11 since Darryl Sutter took over from Terry Murray as coach in December -- look like the best of the four teams still skating.
Tuesday night's 4-0 Jonathan Quick shutout victory over Glendale's favorite hockey team was a demonstration of domination. While the Coyotes started reasonably well, the Kings eventually took control of the proceedings. "I like the first period, first part of the second period. We got to find a way to sustain that," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett bemoaned afterward (video). "Obviously keep some pucks out of our net, be more disciplined, capitalize on a chance or two. At least give ourselves a chance where we feel like we're competitive in the game."
By midgame, the Coyotes weren't. There wasn't one area of play in which the Kings came out second best. They won the races for the puck, they won the battles along the boards and in the corners and in front of the net. They made the Coyotes chase them and the game, frustrating them to the point of taking some foolish penalties, at least one of which could bring about a suspension. The Kings even got the breaks on some refs' decisions as well, not that they needed them.
"They are using their size," Tippett said. "They're throwing a lot of pucks at the net, you know, crashing the net. We're trying to do the same thing. We just haven't got as many pucks there."
You'll find no better example of that than the Kings' second goal, the first of three by Jeff Carter, but it was made possible by the excellent hard work and physical play of Dustin Penner. (You know the Kings have something going on when you can put "excellent hard work and physical play" in a sentence that refers to Dustin Penner.)
It wasn't only Penner who displayed hunger on that goal, everyone in white did. "They don't have any answers for the way the Kings covet the puck," Al Muir wrote of Phoenix in his fine SI.com breakdown of the game. "Their best players have been relegated to the shadows. And they haven't shown the creativity needed to make something happen outside their strictly regimented system. It's tough to play opportunistic hockey when the other team doesn't allow you any opportunities."
That's how most of the game looked and as the second period wound down, the Coyotes got into penalty trouble. Daymond Langkow got a slashing minor and Shane Doan got five and a game for boarding Trevor Lewis on this play:
In fact, Doan perhaps shouldn't even have gotten a minor penalty, as bad as the result was with Lewis' face bloodied. But Lewis turned his back to Doan after Doan was committed to the hit. The betting here is that Doan won't be suspended because Lewis put himself in a vulnerable position. "Think Doan's hit on Lewy, Lewy is turning back," Sutter said afterward. "It's probably more of a hockey play, eh? It's a tough one. I didn't really have a big problem with that."
But prior to the hit, you can see how ragged the Coyotes were playing on their penalty kill and, because of the slash by Langkow earlier in the sequence, they were going to be short two men anyway. Then goalie Mike Smith took a slash at Dustin Brown (and the referees, charitably, also gave Brown a diving minor). Shortly afterward, Carter got his second goal of the game on the resulting 5-on-3 and there was little chance the Coyotes were coming back from that deficit the way they were playing. The once-disciplined dogs had come undone. They unraveled further when Martin Hanzal got a five-minute major and game misconduct for boarding Brown on this play, one that can't be disputed as the right call.
That one could earn Hanzal, Phoenix's best two-way forward, a suspension, even though Brown was uninjured. Brendan Shanahan wasn't reluctant to sit the Flyers' Claude Giroux for a game when he delivered a headshot to the Devils' Dainius Zubrus in the second round, even though Zubrus was uninjured. Shanahan might apply the same standard here. Regardless, it was indicative of how badly the Coyotes were taking their defeat.
"I think they realize they can't compete on paper and they can't compete on ice," NBC and SI's Pierre McGuire said on Team 1200 radio in Ottawa Wednesday morning (audio) and he cited what he called "the inevitability factor" that can kick in at some point during a playoff series in which "one team inevitably knows they're going to win and one team inevitably knows they're going to lose. I think the inevitability factor's kicking in and that's a tough place to be if you're Phoenix. Obviously, they're not used to being in this position in the first two rounds."
"The Coyotes really look disheartened right now," Marc Crawford said Tuesday night on the NHL on TSN panel (video). "And sometimes it's because there's no gas in the tank, sometimes it's because you don't have anything because those previous series have taken so much out of you. But right now, I think it's because they look at the other side and they say, 'These guys are too big, they're too strong, they're too good and they're firing on all cylinders right now.'"
There's lots of evidence, as if the Coyotes needed it, that points to the Kings' overpowering status early in the third round, as Tim Wharnsby on CBC.ca has compiled:
- This was the third consecutive series that the Kings snatched a 2-0 lead on the road.
- The last time they trailed in a game was in the first period of the second-round series opener when David Backes put the St. Louis Blues up 1-0.
- The Kings have won seven in a row on the road, which ties the record for most consecutive road wins in a playoff season.
- The Kings also have won nine straight on the road, dating back to last year, matching the Stanley Cup playoff record set by the New York Islanders in 1982 and 1983.
- The Kings' penalty-killing unit has gone a stingy 44-for-47 and has killed off its past 28 straight disadvantages.
- Los Angeles has won 10 of 11 playoff games in two-plus rounds, including the last seven in a row, which is a club record.
- The Kings have had 14 different players combine to score 35 goals in 11 games.
And now, having lost just one of 11 in the playoff thus far, they get to go home where their fans have been dreaming that this dominant run their team is on will finally bring the Cup to L.A. Of course, the '08 Penguins started the playoffs 10-1, too, and they didn't win the Cup. They dropped the final in six games to the Red Wings. So, those dreams are a bit premature. They certainly are for Sutter who, like any coach in the playoffs, takes them one at a time. "I don't look at it as a remarkable run," he said. "We are going to have to play better next game than we did tonight. I know that."
Well, at least Kings fans hope the next game gives them a chance to bring their brooms to Game 4.