Canucks-Kings not a typical 1 vs. 8 matchup

April 10, 2012

There was the cross-Atlantic trip to open the year in Stockholm. There was a fired coach when expectations were not met, followed by an increase in the quality of play at home. There was the acquisition of a major offensive piece shortly before the trading deadline that coincided with a second-half surge in which a playoff berth was earned for the third consecutive year.

How about those 2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins?

In a season that concluded with Rob Scuderi becoming the first native-born Long Islander to win the Stanley Cup, it was the shake-up of a talented but under-performing team that primed the focus of the eventual Cup champions.

“The fact that management had to do those things kind of snapped us back into reality, and we realized that we were going to miss the playoffs if we had continued at the same clip,” Scuderi, a current LA Kings defenseman, said of the 2009 Penguins. “We just started to play as a team, and good things started to happen.”

Sound familiar?

Is Darryl Sutter the Kings’ answer to Dan Bylsma? Can Jeff Carter channel some of his Chris Kunitz?

While Pittsburgh was seeded fourth compared to Los Angeles’ eighth-seed, they do share one characteristic more important than anything listed above: standout, young goaltending.

Marc-Andre Fleury had started 224 games prior to the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs, while Jonathan Quick enters the 2012 postseason with 244 games behind the mask, the final 69 of which comprised the greatest season by a goaltender in franchise history.

Ranking second in the NHL with a 1.95 goals against average, fifth with 35 wins and a .929 save percentage, and the league leader with 10 shutouts, Quick and the Kings understand that it’s status quo or bust in their first round series against the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks.

While it’s a stretch to expect Quick’s exact same stat line in the playoffs, his sturdiness in net must be the backbone to any Kings success in this series. If his performance drops at all noticeably from his across-the-board dominance during the regular season, a heavy strain will be placed on the Kings’ offense, which concluded the year ranked 29th out of 30 teams but averaged three goals per game in March and April.

“Down the stretch, our best players have been a lot better than they were the previous 60 games or so,” captain Dustin Brown said. “And that’s across the board, maybe with the exception of Quick. He’s been pretty good for 82 games.”

The help Quick receives in front of him is one of the advantages Los Angeles has over Vancouver. After the Canucks’ top-four D of Alex Edler, Sami Salo, Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis, the depth roles are not as squared away with Keith Ballard’s status in doubt due to a concussion and Chris Tanev, Marc-Andre Gragnani, Aaron Rome and Andrew Alberts fighting for spots in the lineup. The Kings’ dump, chase and cycle game will strive to make hits on Vancouver defensemen below the goal line to set up offensive opportunities, meaning Dwight King’s strength along the boards will be a key in opening up space for linemates Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, as it has been in the line’s success over the previous month. Carter practiced Monday and is expected to play in Game 1 after missing time with an ankle injury.

With or without Daniel Sedin in the Canucks' lineup – the winger has not played since suffering a concussion on an elbow by Duncan Keith on March 21 – Vancouver’s waves of skill up front and ability to implement a puck possession game will pose a major challenge even for a team that allowed the second-fewest goals in the league and ranked fourth on the penalty kill. While the Canucks have more speed through their lineup, the Kings match up well with their depth down the center of the ice, putting importance on the individual matchups between centers Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler of Vancouver, and Anze Kopitar and Mike Richards of Los Angeles. Experience-hardened third-line centers Samuel Pahlsson of Vancouver and Jarret Stoll of LA also have plenty to provide in two-way roles.

Richards was brought to LA specifically for this type of situation, as his work ethic, tenacity and offensive acumen has led to consistent postseason success. He averaged a point per game in Philadelphia’s run to the 2010 Cup Finals and has 50 points in 63 career playoff games.

“In a seven-game series, it’s guys like that that kind of wear on you and grind you down,” Brown said of Richards. “Sometimes with Rick, it’s a psychological game with him, and sometimes it’s a physical game where he can just be a jerk to play against. That definitely helps us.”

It sounds like a chapter from the book the Boston Bruins wrote last spring. Brown, Richards, and pests like Kyle Clifford and Colin Fraser will always be looking to make that extra hit in the offensive zone, especially on a Canucks defensive corps looking to avoid any contact to advance the puck. The Kings averaged nearly 28 hits per game, the second highest mark in the league.

“They’re a high-skilled team,” Brown said. “It’s important for us to make it really hard on their top players.”

There are 20 holdovers between Los Angeles and Vancouver from the 2010 series, one that will be remembered for its special teams explosion as the Kings scored 10 power play goals and the two teams combined to operate at 32 percent through the six-game series.

Lower scores should be expected this time around. In the teams’ most recent meeting on March 26, both teams played a mostly mistake-free 60 minutes of hockey in a 1-0 Canucks win behind 38 Roberto Luongo saves. While there are those who have raised the issue of Luongo’s mental fragility in playoff situations, it may be he who is in the Kings’ head — the veteran is 14-9-3 against LA in the regular season with a 2.22 goals against average and .921 save percentage.

In overtime of Game 1 two years ago, it was Luongo’s heroics of pulling a puck away from the goal line in overtime that served as an enduring snapshot of the series and a reminder of his career success against the Kings.

“It’s a new team in here, a new identity, new everything,” Stoll said. "We’re a different team than we were two years ago, and so are they.”

One thing that isn’t different is the way that Los Angeles fell backwards into a lower playoff seed than they had hoped. “We always make it tough on ourselves,” Brown said. In a predicament eerily similar to that of a season ago against another playoff opponent steeped in experience and with an advantage in skill (San Jose), LA has work to do if it wants to repeat the achievements of the 2009 Penguins instead of the 2011 Kings.

The offense has come around enough to make this playoff series much more difficult to predict than a typical one versus eight matchup. Nine different goal scorers found the back of the net in the five games Carter missed at the end of the season, with Martinez, Voynov, and even former Canuck Willie Mitchell adding needed production from the blue line. The team averaged 3.1 goals and allowed 2.1 goals per game over its final 21 games, a remarkable statistic considering their punishing March schedule. Though the San Jose games might not have been the best illustration, Los Angeles was playing its best hockey of the year late in the season, a good characteristic to have when assuming the role of an underdog in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

“That’s what we believe,” Stoll said. “We’ve seen our team play really, really well. I don’t expect us to play any less than that. We’ve played some great stretches against San Jose the last couple games, the last 15 games we’ve played some great hockey. We have all the ingredients here we feel, and that’s really all that matters, what we feel inside these walls, in this dressing room.”

If Los Angeles is to experience the success that they expect, they’re going to have to play much better with the lead, an objective that proved difficult the final week of the season and makes longtime Kings fans cringe. For this team to pull off the upset they’re certainly capable of, they absolutely can not add to the bank of postseason collapses stuffed with the memories of playoff series against Montreal, St. Louis, Vancouver and San Jose. For a team that features a Vezina Trophy candidate in goal and three sturdy defensive pairings, this shouldn’t be as big of an issue as it apparently is.

Prior to Carter’s injury, this was a Kings team that roared into the final two weeks of the season with confidence backed by the expectations of playoff success. Newspaper writers and analysts had projected LA as the team most upper-echelon squads would prefer to avoid in the first round as the team soared to an 11-5 record in the 16 games Carter was in the lineup.

“If these two teams ever met up, it would be a hell of a series,” St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock said after the Kings’ 1-0 shootout win at Staples Center last month. The Blues finished with 109 points.

The Kings are every bit as dangerous now as Carter’s ankle allows them to be. If his line can combine with the Brown-Kopitar-Justin Williams line to spread out the opposition’s defense and create difficult matchups, Vancouver will definitely have its hands full. If Quick is able to steal a game or two and act as LA’s best penalty killer in addition to the above condition, this 1-versus-8 series becomes much closer to a 4-versus-5 matchup.

“That’s the exciting thing about this time of year,” Brown said. “Regardless of whether you finish eighth or first or whether you win the Presidents’ Trophy or not, you have an opportunity to win a Stanley Cup. It’s a tough road, and the first step starts on Wednesday.”