Rivalry restored between Kings and Coyotes

A once-sleepy regional rivalry between two Western cities is
ready to be ignited and rewritten as longtime divisional foes Los Angeles and
Phoenix finally face each other in the franchises’ first head-to-head playoff
series.

If they can take care of Washington in Game 7 on Saturday, the New York Rangers
could very well meet up with their Holland Tunnel rivals in New Jersey for the
fourth time since Seinfeld turned “We’re the Devils! The Devils!”
into a cultural moment in 1995. Up to this point, no such distaste has been so
acutely developed through a playoff grind between two desert cities linked by
350 miles of Interstate 10.

Even in basketball, where the Lakers and Suns have met each other 12 times in
the postseason, no revered sustaining rivalry has emerged between the two teams
that traditionally represent the upper echelon of the Pacific Division and met
as recently as 2010 in the NBA Western Conference finals. For the Lakers and
their fans, there will always be the Celtics, and then the Spurs, and looking
back at the pinnacle of the Western Conference’s parity, the Trailblazers, Jazz
and Supersonics and probably the Suns as well. Just because “Beat
L.A.” is chanted voraciously at America West Arena doesn’t mean a profound
rivalry exists.

Are there really any Angelenos who harbor the slightest spite towards Kirk
Gibson and the Diamondbacks? Was there anything substantial stirred up in the
seven all-time NFL games contested between LA and Phoenix?

Not really, and that’s part of what makes this third-round playoff series so much
fun. Because the Kings’ and Coyotes’ postseason accomplishments have been so
limited, this series will take up an awful lot of print in the two teams’
history books and leave a lasting impression on their fans’ psyches. It will
also continue raising the pillars of a nascent hockey rivalry, one that came
into focus on Feb. 16 when captains Dustin Brown and Shane Doan fought, as did
centers Mike Richards and Martin Hanzal, Colin Fraser and Raffi Torres, and
even a scrum involving Anze Kopitar and goaltender Mike Smith — all in the
first period. Phoenix escaped Staples Center with a win that night, one of two
1-0 games the defensively attuned teams played against each other.

“I thought our games we played with them in the regular season were
playoff-type games,” the Coyotes’ Keith Yandle said Wednesday.

•    •    •

Statistically and observationally, these are probably the two most clicking,
bought-in teams in hockey right now, along with the New Jersey Devils.
Obviously any team that reaches the conference finals has to be operating at an
extraordinarily high level, but the Coyotes’ 13-3 record since March 29 – a 16-game
stretch in which they limited their opponent to one goal or less eight times –
is nearly as remarkable as the eighth-seeded Kings’ 8-1 playoff record against
the top two seeds in the Western Conference and their seven consecutive road
playoff wins, dating back to last season. Just don’t call them a Cinderella
team.

The two teams used different paths to get to this point, though they’ve both
relied on heavy tenets of Sutter’s Law — goaltending, special teams, unsung
heroes, top players and discipline. Sutter even dropped a reference to
“bad breaks” on Wednesday.

Both teams were top-five defensive teams in the regular season, though it’s the
way they’ve applied offense that has allowed for their playoff transformation.
While the Brown-Kopitar-Justin Williams line has combined for 28 points and a
plus-19 rating through nine games, it has been Los Angeles’ unsung
contributions from every skater in the lineup that have provided that bump
necessary to win eight of nine playoff games against two teams that battled for
the President’s Trophy. Clutch goals by Jarret Stoll, Brad Richardson and
Trevor Lewis lifted the Kings over the Canucks and were followed by important
goals in the second round by Matt Greene, Dwight King and Jordan Nolan. Of the
18 skaters who have appeared in at least six playoff games, 17 have scored.

“I think if you look at lines three and four, everybody’s outscoring their
opposition,” Williams said. “Our third line has scored more than
their third line. Our fourth line has scored more than their fourth line that
we’ve played so far. We’re going to need solid contributions from everybody.

“That’s what ‘playoffs’ is.”

Becoming more apparent in Los Angeles’ late-season efforts, the Kings have
moved the puck up the ice with an explosive urgency under Sutter, limiting
their defensive-zone time and occasionally catching their opponents in
transition.

“You don’t want to play in your zone, and the quicker we can get out of
there, the quicker we can get to our game,” Williams said.

It’s puck-possession efficiency that has also become a staple of the Coyotes’
play under Dave Tippett, another coach who has pushed his team to successfully
advance the puck quickly this postseason.

“Phoenix is a really good neutral-zone team,” Sutter said. “It’s
one of the strengths of how Dave coaches, and that’s one of the strengths of
the game.”

Phoenix’s deep blue line often pairs a fleet puck mover with a versatile,
defensive type during even-strength play. Yandle continues to excel in the
up-tempo playoff cadence and has been a large reason the Coyotes were able to
improve their power play from a 29th-ranked 13.6-percent success rate in the regular
season to a more-acceptable 16.1-percent clip that places them in the middle of
the pack among playoff teams. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, two months shy of his 21st
birthday, ranks third among active playoff participants with an average 26:04
of ice time per game and is often paired with stay-at-home D-man Michal
Rozsival, while Rostislav Klesla, tied for second on the team in postseason
scoring with Yandle and Mikkel Boedker, will often skate with veteran Adrian
Aucoin.

“I think all of our guys have offensive ability. Everybody is pretty good
with the puck, plays the puck well, makes good passes. And that’s the key,
especially in this game, is to try to make one pass and get out of the zone
quick or as quick as you can. And I think we’ve got guys who are great
defensively as well, too, but I think we’ve got a lot of good puck-moving
guys.”

Rozsival recently returned from injury and Aucoin’s availability for Game 1 is
unclear after he left Game 5 of the Nashville series with an undisclosed injury.
David Schlemko slotted in ably in the absence of Rozsival and Klesla (Game 5 suspension)
against the Predators.

One of the major factors for success in this series hinges on one team’s
ability to successfully implement their own aggressive forecheck to disrupt the
other team’s skilled puck movers.

The Kings defensively are inclined to pair a younger puck mover with a more
veteran stay-at-home type. Each of the veterans has previously appeared in a
conference final — Willie Mitchell with Minnesota in 2003, Greene, a Stanley
Cup participant with Edmonton in 2006, and Rob Scuderi, a Stanley Cup winner
with Pittsburgh in 2009. Greene and Scuderi are among eight Kings who have
appeared in the Stanley Cup Finals, along with Cup winners Dustin Penner, Williams
and Colin Fraser and runners up Richards, Jeff Carter and Stoll.

“As a collective mentality, it kind of bleeds onto the rest of the guys
because we’ve been there before,” Penner said of the players with Cup
experience.

“We’ve seen the puppeteer and the strings. We know what to expect.”

Up front, the Coyotes have excelled despite a drop in production from what was
their best line during most of the regular season. Though Hanzal suffered a
lower body injury in the Chicago series and only recently regained his comfort
level in Round 2, the 6-foot-6 first-line, two-way center with surprisingly
active hands acts as the gears that get the most out of skilled wingers Ray
Whitney and Radim Vrbata. Vrbata has one even strength goal thus far and if
that isn’t surpassed several times over in this series, Phoenix may be in trouble.
His five goals and seven points against Los Angeles were the most against any
team and part of a career-high 35 goal campaign.

One of the series’ more scrutinized matchups will be between captains Doan and
Brown, both of whom have endured grating years of regular and postseason
hardship to be able to stand on the precipice of a Cup Finals berth. Both
players have been enormously important to their teams’ efforts thus far, though
with 11 points and a plus-nine rating in nine games, Brown may be the most
effective forward on any team in the 2012 playoffs.

“He’s probably been the best forward, the best player,” Doan said.
“You look at (Kings goalie Jonathan) Quick, and you look at Smitty, the
goaltenders, they always rule the playoffs. But outside, as a player, he’s
probably been the best player in the playoffs. It’s been fun to watch, it’s
going to be really fun to compete against him, for sure. I mean, you look
forward to that.”

Doan will likely see time with Boedker and Antoine Vermette, the latter of whom
leads the team in postseason scoring with five goals and nine points.

Another premier matchup clearly resides in net, where Smith and Quick have been
the motors to their teams’ playoff campaigns. Smith’s save percentage is .948
in the playoffs; Quick’s is .949. Both have demonstrated that they are
completely capable of winning games practically by themselves — Quick’s 41-save
Game 3 shutout of Vancouver was one of the postseason’s top goaltending
performances, while Smith led Phoenix to a six-game series win over Chicago despite
facing an average of more than 40 shots per game.

The Kings have already shown that they can get through a playoff series when
facing top-notch goaltending. Despite only one goal in regulation each night,
Los Angeles went 2-1 against Vancouver in the three games started by Cory
Schneider and also emerged with a pair of wins while going up against a strong
Roberto Luongo.

Both teams feature stingy penalty kills, with the Kings shutting out St. Louis through
17 attempts and the Coyotes clamping down on Nashville’s power play in its
final 12 attempts after it had led the league in power-play efficiency during
the regular season. With dynamic chemistry between forwards Kopitar and Brown
and renowned shorthanded specialist Richards, Los Angeles has outscored its
opponents 4-3 while shorthanded this postseason, though their power play is in
a 1-for-35 rut.

•    •    •

Amongst the intangibles are both teams’ barren playoff records and a pair of
respected coaches clearly pushing the right buttons with their players. There’s
really nothing too fancy with either team — these are two quick, north-south
type squads capable of throwing their weight around physically and pressuring
their opponents into turning the puck over and making mistakes. The team more
effectively able to forecheck and impose a strain on the puck carriers leaving
their zone will find success in this series. Lewis’ ability in pressuring Dan
Hamhuis to turn the puck over to Stoll in overtime in the first round and Brown’s
stripping of Carlo Colaiacovo to feed a dangling Kopitar while shorthanded in Round
2 are strong examples of what the Kings will be looking to reproduce.

“Stick to what works, right? We don’t want to come in here and X and O’s
ourselves to death and change too much,” Fraser said. “You make your
adjustments to what they’re trying to do, but we’re not talking major changes.
We’ve been successful to this point, and we’ve got to continue to do what works
for us, and that’s playing hard, heavy forechecking, and obviously being good
defensively.”

Both teams have been allowed a playoff respite and an opportunity to hit that
oft-quoted ‘reset button’ as the Rangers-Capitals series goes the distance, and
while they’ve rightfully received significant attention from both local and
national hockey media, don’t expect either team to lose sight of its focus.

“We’re really just trying to focus on the smaller goals, like getting
ready for the first period, first shift for the next game in Phoenix,” Penner
said.

Stories such as Detroit’s home record, St. Louis’ resurgence and Nashville’s
bulking up at the trade deadline influenced representations of the Central
Division’s top-heavy dominance this year, but come May, there are two fully
bought-in Pacific Division teams that will fight for the opportunity to play
for the Stanley Cup.

“You never know, but you always talk about how you get into the playoffs
and almost anything can happen, and two weeks before the playoffs I’m sure that
not too many people were picking this,” Doan said. “But it doesn’t
matter, we’re both here and we’re excited.”