GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Phoenix Coyotes have played 11 playoff games so far this postseason. Eight of them were decided by one goal and six needed overtime to determine a winner.
Nothing new there: Half of the 82 games the Coyotes played during the regular season were decided by one goal, and 22 went to overtime. Five of the Coyotes' six regular-season meetings with the Los Angeles Kings were decided by one goal and three went past regulation.
That leaves a fans base with very few fingernails -- and a team that is very comfortable walking the high wire without a net. The Western Conference Finals will kick off Sunday night in 100-degree Arizona heat, and the comfort level won't be any better in the ice than in the sun. There are few secrets between these Pacific Division rivals who have a lot more than Wayne Gretzky and warm weather in common.
The Coyotes won the last two regular-season meetings and edged the Kings for the Pacific Division title. Los Angeles has been the better team during the playoffs and is favored by many to take home the first Stanley Cup in franchise history. But the Coyotes have been the underdogs since the playoffs began and have reveled in the role, beating Chicago and Nashville eight out of 11 times.
"They're a similar hockey team to what we are," Phoenix center Boyd Gordon said. "It's the same kind of style. They have great goaltending and they're strong on the back. They've got some skill guys that can put the puck in the net. You look at that team and you see our team. Both teams will be both disciplined and physical."
Jonathan Quick or Mike Smith? Shane Doan or Dustin Brown? Drew Doughty or Keith Yandle? Even Darryl Sutter and Dave Tippett – a pair of old-school, no-nonsense guys who had long NHL careers who run their teams with unquestioned respect while demanding nothing less – are hard to separate. Sutter took over a floundering team in December and rebuilt its confidence from the back out – something Tippett preaches constantly.
"Tactically, I don't think they changed a lot," Tippett said of the Kings under Sutter, who replaced Terry Murray in December. "You see their team and it looks like they just play with more emotion, and that kind of changed as it went on. You automatically get an emotional kick when you change the coach, but their team -- they seemed to build as the year went on, and obviously they're playing very well."
Both have teams that are better than the sum of its parts. Both have power plays that have struggled in the postseason (a combined 9-for-78, 11.5 percent) while their penalty-killers have dominated with a combined efficiency of 90 percent.
Much of the PK prowess is due to the stellar goaltending of Jonathan Quick and Mike Smith, who combined for three shutouts during the season series and had a combined goals against average of 1.77 and a save percentage of .935. Incredibly, both have been even better than that in the playoffs -- Quick's .949 save percentage is barely ahead of Smith's .948) -- and are in the first rank of nominees for the Conn Smythe Trophy at the halfway point.
Don't expect a secret weapon to be the difference-maker at this point.
"Between pre-scouting and knowing their personnel and being in the same division, there really are no secrets," Tippett said. "You're going to have two teams that are going to play hard and each team is finding a way to win."
Both teams are healthy and as well-rested as you can possibly hope for at this point in the season. Both had an extended break before round two and will have at least six days to prepare for this series. Adrian Aucoin was the only Phoenix player who didn't skate on Thursday, but he's expected to be ready for Game 1 on Sunday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TSN, RDS). The Coyotes will be without suspended forward Raffi Torres, who had two goals against the Kings in the regular season, but the emergence of Mikkel Boedker during the postseason has softened any potential negative impact from his absence.
The Coyotes have the home-ice advantage. And while it should be noted that the Kings are 5-0 on the road in the playoffs, a week of rust that needs to be knocked off each team Sunday night might be easier managed at home. There's a fine line between rest and rust, and Tippett had his players going hard and at a high tempo on Thursday after two days of rest.
"You have to manage that. You have to make sure you have a good plan in place to be ready for Game 1," Tippett said of the break between series. "(Thursday) was a good work day and everyone felt good about getting a hard sweat."
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