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Elite goalies lead Coyotes, Kings into rare territory

by Shawn P. Roarke

Phoenix Coyotes

Seed: 342-27-13 97Pts.

Los Angeles Kings

Seed: 840-27-15 95Pts.
A long drought will be slaked in the Western Conference Finals.

The Phoenix Coyotes have never been to the third round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, so clearly a trip to the Stanley Cup Final would also be history in the making. The Los Angeles Kings, meanwhile, have not made it this far in 19 years.

The long dry spell is not the only thing these teams have in common. Each is anchored by an all-everything goalie playing at the top of his game -- Mike Smith for Phoenix and Jonathan Quick for the Kings. Each worries about its own zone first and sells out to protect the area around the net. Each is coached by a master tactician -- Darryl Sutter in Los Angeles and Dave Tippett in Phoenix -- that gets the most out of his talent. And each is led by a captain that sets the identity for the team.

Shane Doan in Phoenix is a workmanlike player that has stayed the course with the Coyotes during trying times and is now being rewarded for his loyalty. Dustin Brown, meanwhile, has been through some very lean years with his franchise and is now setting the tone with his work ethic and his physicality.

Not surprisingly, the regular-season series between these two teams is almost too close to call. The Pacific Division rivals met six times this season with each claiming three wins. There were just 25 goals scored in the series and the Kings had 13 of them. Three games featured a shutout and all but one was decided by one goal.

Now, they get to decide which team-- separated by no more than two overtime losses across an 82-game season -- is better and will earn the right to play in a long-awaited Stanley Cup Final.
It has truly been scoring by committee for the Coyotes in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

In their 11 postseason games, the Coyotes have dressed 15 different forwards. Thirteen of them have registered at least one point and 10 have managed to score a goal. Those numbers underlie the deep, four-line attack that Dave Tippett has at his disposal.

Antoine Vermette has enjoyed a renaissance in the desert and leads the team with five goals and nine points. Daymond Lankgow, meanwhile, has a team-leading five assists. Three other players, including the ageless Wizard, Ray Whitney, have four assists.

But the Phoenix system is about two-way play, and the Coyotes have mastered that. Only four of the Phoenix forwards own a negative plus/minus and three of those are at minus-1. Captain Shane Doan, who is leading by example throughout these playoffs, is a plus-5.

The longest-suffering Kings forwards have paced them through the stunning eliminations of the top-seeded Vancouver Canucks and the second-seeded St. Louis Blues. Dustin Brown, the team's captain and a member of the club since 2003, has a team-best 11 points. Anze Kopitar, who joined the Kings in 2006, has 10 points.

But the Kings are in this position because of contributions from newcomers. Mike Richards, who joined the club in a blockbuster deal this summer, has three goals and eight points. Dustin Penner, who came to the team at the trade deadline last year, has seven points and is enjoying a bit of a renaissance. Justin Williams, who came over from the Hurricanes in 2008, also has seven points.

This group of forwards has two other attractive qualities when it comes to playoff hockey. It is deep, as 11 forwards have scored at least one goal, and it is defensively sound. Depth forward Dwight King is the only minus-rated forward among the dozen that have played six or more playoff games.

Oliver Ekman-Larson has continued his season-long, coming-of-age party right into the postseason. The 20-year-old Swede has played, on average, more than 26 minutes per game for the Coyotes in the playoffs. He has contributed four points, but more importantly, he has played a game with very few mistakes. He has also been valuable cover on the occasions when Rostislav Klesla has not been available because of injury or suspension.

It is hard to measure the impact of Klesla in the lineup because his game truly defies a cursory statistical analysis. But he has seven points and has been an inspiration playing through a pair of painful facial injuries. Keith Yandle, who plays 20 minutes a game, also has seven points, all assists. Phoenix, which has trouble scoring, needs production from the blue line and has 23 points from its defensemen in 11 games this postseason.

The rest of the defense corps is comprised of tested veterans. Michal Rozsival plays more than 22 minutes, second only to Ekman-Larsson. Both Derek Morris and Adrian Aucoin, who picked up a bit of a knock in Game 5 against Nashville, have each played more than 1,000 NHL games.
It appears that Drew Doughty really likes playing playoff hockey. After a good, but not great, regular season, Doughty has again found that gear that makes him the elite, game-changing young defenseman the Kings envisioned when they selected him at No. 2 in 2008. Doughty is playing more than 25 minutes, has six points and is a plus-7.

Doughty is getting some help, though. Unsung veteran Willie Mitchell is also averaging better than 25 minutes and is an anchor in his own end. Rob Scuderi, who won the Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 2009, is another defense-first guy relied upon heavily by Darryl Sutter.

Matt Greene, Alec Martinez and Slava Voynov are the under-30 group of defenders who are gaining valuable experience in the playoff cauldron.

Mike Smith has been the story for the Coyotes this spring.

Relegated to a back-up role last season with Tampa Bay after he battled injury problems, Smith has found a new lease on life after joining the Coyotes.

His strong season has been trumped by an even more impressive postseason. He has a 1.77 goals-against average and an other-worldly .948 save percentage. He has allowed two or fewer goals in eight of the 11 playoff games Phoenix has played this year, and is the only goalie so far this postseason with more than one shutout.

Also, his superior puckhandling skill often blunts the forechecking plans of the opposition and must be accounted for in any game plan.

As good as Mike Smith has been for the Coyotes, Jonathan Quick has been just as good for the Kings. He has lost just once and has a minuscule 1.55 goals-against average. He has stopped 260 of 274 shots this postseason for a .959 save percentage.

What makes Quick's numbers all the more impressive is the quality of competition against which they were compiled. The top-seeded Canucks scored 249 goals in the regular season, the fourth-highest total in the League. Yet, they managed just eight goals in five games in the first round. The Blues scored 210 goals, which was more middle of the pack, but managed just six goals in a four-game ouster.


Dave Tippett has pushed all the right buttons for the Coyotes, getting the team to buy into his message of defensive accountability.

Just as importantly, he has shown a steady hand in leading the team through a number of distractions this postseason, including the pending sale of the franchise, the Raffi Torres suspension and the injuries and suspension to Klesla.

Darryl Sutter has made all the difference since joining the Kings as an in-season replacement.

The Kings still play a sound defensive game, but Sutter has given them the tactics -- and confidence -- to attack more often and more efficiently. The results have been stunning. The Kings are averaging three goals per game, a number only reached by four of the 16 playoff teams.

Sutter has also brought an identity to a team that was finding its way as it added several important pieces in a tumultuous nine-month period.
Special Teams

This should come as no surprise for a team that is so defensively sound, but the Coyotes' penalty kill is far more effective than its power play.

The penalty kill has the fourth-best effectiveness in the postseason, killing 89.5 percent of the man-disadvantage situations it has faced. Amazingly, the Coyotes have yet to allow a power-play goal in five road games, killing all 16 opportunities.

Phoenix is just 5-for-31 on the power play for a pedestrian 16.1 percent conversion rate. Vermette has three of those five goals.

The Kings are deadly on the penalty kill, causing headaches with their aggressiveness in their own end. In nine games, the Kings already have four shorthanded goals.

Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar, the team's two leading scorers, are responsible for three of the four shorthanded goals. Defensive defenseman Matt Greene has the other.

The Kings' PK has to be good because the team is getting precious little help from its power play, which has converted on just four of 47 attempts this postseason. More amazingly, only one of those PP goals has come at the Staples Center.

Series Changer

Martin Hanzal -- Goals in this series are going to be hard to come by and Hanzal has the big frame (6-foot-6, 236 pounds) that can establish a net-front pressure that will make Jonathon Quick's life a bit more miserable. Hanzal has three goals this postseason, but has also missed some time with injury. He must remain healthy and effective.

Jeff Carter -- His addition has given the Kings more depth and more confidence that they can score goals. But Carter has not been scoring himself. He has just one goal and four points. In a series in which goal-scoring should be at a premium, it is important that your goal-scorers find a way to get going.

What If ...

Coyotes will win if … Phoenix continues to get offense from its defense at the same rate. The one thing that can slow the Coyotes down is an inability to pull away from opponents. If the defense corps continues to average a couple of points per game, the offense becomes a lot more flexible and reliable.

Kings will win if... Los Angeles finds a way to get its power play going. These teams are relatively even in most categories, but the Kings' anemic power play could be a difference-maker. There is too much talent for such ineffectiveness.

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