Their name may mean royalty. But the Los Angeles Kings have been playing like well-paid mercenaries.
The Phoenix Coyotes may have finally met their match in the Kings. Neither team was on anyone’s radar at the start of the playoffs; now, they’re playing for a chance to go to the Stanley Cup final and win it all.
The Coyotes have some notoriety to match their name too. If the Kings are the, well, kings of the playoffs so far, with a five game series victory over the Stanley Cup finalist and President’s Trophy winning Canucks and a sweep of the 2nd place Blues, the ‘Yotes are a scavenger team if there ever was one. Geniusly assembled by GM Don Maloney, they play a lurking and non-descript game, waiting for errors to make their opponents pay.
The desert dogs didn’t have the luxury of sitting around watching two possible opponents play hockey for a few days to celebrate their latest historic accomplishment (1st conference final in 32 years). They’ve known since last Saturday who was waiting on the other side of their second round series against Nashville. And for the first time this year, they have reason to be afraid.
Not that they are, or will be, or admit that they are. But no one can deny that in this unlikeliest of playoffs, L.A. has established itself as the team to beat in the West. That happened a couple of games into the second round when it became obvious that Nashville’s dominating contender status was a house of cards.
L.A. after two rounds is menacing indeed. One loss in nine games and eight other matches in which their opponents have been stifled, frustrated, and outsmarted at every turn. Phoenix plays a patient game, putting up an unyielding defensive wall until you make a mistake they can capitalize on. Los Angeles has played a slightly different game that nobody has managed to figure out yet: suffocation. And if you do manage to escape for a breath of fresh air against the hard hitting forwards and choking defence, good luck beating the hottest goalie in the game, Jonathan Quick, who is sporting a 1.55 GAA and a 9.49 save percentage to go with his 1 shutout in these playoffs.
Everyone has been asking where this team came from. It’s not a silly question. The truth is that the star power has been there for some time. No serious hockey mind would deny at any time in the past three years that you are dealing with elite players in Drew Doughty, Dustin Brown, Jonathan Quick and Anze Kopitar. But the combination this contingent’s youth, inexperience and lack of highlight reel goals ensured that they stayed off the magazine and video game covers, unlike the Crosbys, Ovechkins, and Sedins of this world.
And they’ve since picked up Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, who have been great additions but have also appeared distinctly less starry and showy than they were two years ago in Flyer orange. What is it about L.A. that turns every all-star into an underdog toiler? Is it the nondescript, black and white uniforms? The sunny, palm-tree locale of year round shorts and sunglasses where hockey and the pressure of the playoffs are the last thing on residents’ minds? More likely, it’s the style of play that requires a systemic and defensive commitment and doesn’t leave much time or space for individual flourish. This trend has increases since the team was placed under the stern tutelage of coach Darryl Sutter who’s never met an occasion not worth frowning over, last December. We are seeing the success of this formula, to varying degrees, in all five of the teams remaining in the 2012 playoff race as of today.
So how does Phoenix keep the free-skating, no-pressure juices flowing? Can they commit to playing their game and pretending not to know who their opponent is on Sunday? Odds are they know they have to. If it ain’t broke, which it obviously isn’t when you’ve reached the conference final, don’t fix it. Having said that, Phoenix will have to start acknowledging their opponent if they go down 1-0 or 2-0 in the series at home. Disastrous in itself, this is when coaches often start to focus on opposing players or employing extra tactics. Getting to this point against a then 9-1 or 10-1 LA squad will not produce a trip to the Cup Finals. Phoenix, like it or not, is the underdog going into this, and they will need to make a strong statement in game 1 and bring the Kings’ mood down to earth by about 10,000 feet if they want to succeed in this series. Otherwise the whiteout dream spring will be over.
There’s no reason it should be, though. The same twenty-man strategy will be deployed: Heavy minutes for young guns Ekman-Larsson and Yandle, veterans Morris and Aucoin backing them up, scoring across four lines with Hanzal, Vrbata, Vermette, Whitney and Doan leading the charge, and occasional bailouts from Mike Smith who hopefully rises to the biggest occasion of his career. A prominent hockey blog mentioned this week that the ‘Yotes are going to miss Torres in this one. Maybe, but even if his suspension was lightened following his appeal I’m not sure it would be the best thing. You don’t want to mess with the chemistry of a team that’s in the zone by bringing back someone who was absent due to stupidity. Besides, at 79 games played this year plus a couple playoff matches I’m pretty sure he’d still get his name on the Cup. But maybe there I’m speaking too soon.
At the beginning of the playoffs, I said there was no reason Phoenix couldn’t beat anybody in the West. While that was true, not a lot of people were picking them to make the Conference Final and they have nothing to be ashamed of in going out now. I’m not saying the boys in burgundy don’t have another big surprise in them. I’m just saying that against L.A., no one should be surprised if they don’t.