I would be lying if I didn't admit I was pulling for Los Angeles to beat Phoenix in the Western Conference Finals this season. Being an ex-coach of the team and having had success there, I'll always have a soft spot for L.A. and I still have friends in the organization.
That said, despite my own emotional connection, I have a hard time seeing any differences between these teams. They're basically even in every category. Each team has been phenomenal lately and they're both great stories. I think L.A. is a little better offensively, but I think Phoenix is a little better defensively, and the goaltending is basically a push.
Even if the goaltending of Jonathan Quick
and Mike Smith
is a push, those are the two guys that seem certain to take center stage in this series. The Kings and Coyotes have the hottest goaltenders in the playoffs and each of them has gotten stronger each round. Both of them have had tremendous seasons and outstanding postseasons and that should continue this time around, though there might be some rust. Rust is going to be a problem for both sides, of course. Each team has been off for a while, but the goalies are the people who I'm really going to keep my eye on for that reason. Both Smith and Quick finished their previous series on such a hot note that as a coach, you hate not playing right away when your goalie is playing that well. When your goalie is playing so well and so confidently like each of these guys are right now, you just wish you could keep playing every two days from then on so they do lose the momentum.
I'm very interested in particular to see how Smith handles the layoff. I know Mike pretty well because he played for me in Tampa and when he was there, he was just awesome for me. He's a big guy who's a great athlete that can play several sports, but he's much more in control now than when he played for me in Tampa. Still, I could see the foundations there and I could see his high talent level. Now, however, Mike is turning into a very confident goaltender. I think he's much more mature mentally and physically than he was in Dallas or Tampa, and I think now he's starting to see himself as not just a talented goaltender that can play sometimes, but an NHL goaltender that can play every night.
I think this is what Coyotes fans can expect to see out of Mike Smith
from now on, especially with that team in front of him. It's a great team to play goal for, as is L.A. You don't see a lot of shots from the slot, you don't see a lot of 2-on-1s or 3-on-2s. You really just have to make the save you're supposed to make and if you do that you're going to be in good shape.
I expect both Smith and Quick to play well in this series, but this is going to be very telling for both of them. When you've got young goaltenders that have never done it for four rounds, you definitely need to watch to see how they start to handle the postseason marathon. You need to see if this is kind of performance is an aberration or if this is the real guy. That's what this round will tell. We know these guys can win two rounds. Now we'll see if they can win three rounds.
Of course, goaltending isn't all these two teams have. Both sides will have to rely on experience from the Cup winners in the locker room -- guys like Ray Whitney
and Rob Scuderi
-- but ultimately, I see it coming down to goaltending duels every night and I'm not sure who gets the edge. Like I said before, these teams are so evenly matched up and down the lineup that it's hard to see who will be able to take advantage of what.
Still, I know you all want me to make a prediction, so I'm going to make it. Call it a hunch, but I'm picking the Kings to win in six games and reach their first Stanley Cup Final in 19 years.