EL SEGUNDO, Calif. - Although the Los Angeles Kings are in uncharted playoff territory, they're meeting a familiar opponent there.
The Kings spent Tuesday in early preparations for their all-Pacific Division matchup with the Phoenix Coyotes in the Western Conference finals, expected to start this weekend in Arizona. Los Angeles is making just its second trip to the conference finals in 45 years of existence to face a franchise in its first conference finals in 33 years in the NHL.
Los Angeles captain Dustin Brown caught part of the Coyotes' clincher at home with family, but he already knows plenty about the only remaining obstacle between the Kings and the Stanley Cup finals.
He thinks the unusual matchup is great for hockey, boosting two long-suffering fan bases while underlining both the league's parity and the top-to-bottom toughness of a division that finishes its home games when much of the hockey world is asleep.
"We've been in the same division, playing six times a year, a couple pre-season games," Brown said Tuesday after the Kings' depth players held a brief practice at their training complex. "It's bringing excitement to different markets, and it shows the parity in the league where you probably have two teams that weren't expected to be in this situation playing for a chance to be in the Cup finals."
The Kings and Coyotes haven't met since Feb. 21, when Phoenix rallied from a three-goal deficit for a shootout victory, splitting the six-game season series. Yet they competed down the stretch in the wild three-team race for the Pacific title, with Phoenix finishing one point ahead of San Jose and two points ahead of Los Angeles when the Kings lost their final two games in extra time to the Sharks.
"It was a little disappointing there at the end of the year, the way we closed it out the last two games," goalie Jonathan Quick said. "They were able to win theirs and take something that we'd been working all season, trying to get. We've both knocked off some good teams along the way, and I'd say we're both playing our best hockey of the season."
Both teams are built around goaltending, with Quick and Mike Smith emerging as two of the NHL's best puck-stoppers this season. Quick leads all goalies still alive in the playoffs with a 1.55 goals-against average and a .949 save percentage, while Smith is tops with two shutouts ??? one more than Quick.
Brown thinks the teams are similar on the rest of the ice as well, with solid defences and grinding offences. The Kings are impressed by the Coyotes' speed, yet Los Angeles thinks it can match Phoenix's tempo and grit.
"That's kind of a byproduct of playing in the Pacific Division," said Brown, who has 11 points and leads the NHL with a plus-9 rating in the post-season.
"If you look at Pacific Division teams, they're all pretty similar, and that's a result of the bigger picture of playing in the West," Brown added. "A lot of teams are very similar in the West. Maybe not this year, but the Pacific Division has been one of the tougher divisions over the last 5-6 years. When you're playing those teams six times a year, to be able to compete against those teams, you have to be willing to put on your work boots."
Kings coach Darryl Sutter spent part of Tuesday driving family to the airport, but he's already done advance work on the Coyotes, praising their speed and back-end defence. He sees little difference in overall quality among Los Angeles and Phoenix and the two teams they dispatched in the conference semifinals: St. Louis and Nashville.
"The only difference is really someone's opinion," Sutter said. "Phoenix scored the big goals, and Nashville didn't. They executed better than Nashville did, and that was the difference."