Kings Did the Unimaginable
Make no mistake about it, the second Stanley Cup run by the Los Angeles Kings last season was far more impressive than their first. With the new divisional playoff format, the Kings had to go through the juggernaut of the Western Conference. They had to face the best three teams in their own conference (aside from themselves) in the Sharks, Ducks, and Blackhawks. Each series went the distance, and while they only took five games to beat the New York Rangers in the final, that was a tough fight to end that series.
Conversely, despite being an eighth seed in 2012, the Kings’ first cup run wasn’t nearly as daunting. The Canucks were an overrated top seed. Many Sharks fans at the end of the season were hoping to face the Canucks instead of the Blues. While the Kings were impressive in beating St. Louis in round two, the Phoenix Coyotes and New Jersey Devils weren’t exactly the cream of the crop opponents in the last two rounds. Certainly not the same as beating the Blackhawks and King Henrik.
The current divisional playoff seeding, along with the three-headed monster in California, has brought a renewed emphasis on finishing first in the Pacific. Sure enough, Kings fans may not see it that way considering they won the Stanley Cup as a three seed but you can be sure both Sharks and Ducks fans want no part of finishing second and having to face the Kings in the first round. Even with the Slava Voynov mess that has left the Kings with a big hole in their defense, Los Angeles is still a formidable squad. With the way the standings are starting to evolve, it looks like what we all predicted would happen, will happen. The Ducks, Sharks, and Kings will finish in the top three spots in the division. Arizona and Edmonton are clearly out of the race already, the upstart Calgary Flames are falling fast, just 2-7-1 in their last 10 games, and the Vancouver Canucks look ready to free fall as well. Earlier in the year Vancouver was flirting with first place with Anaheim but are just 4-5-1 in their last 10 games, and have a worse home record than all three Californian teams. Currently they are actually one point up on fourth place LA with two games in hand, but it’s hard to imagine a team predicted to be lousy to finish ahead of the defending champions.
Los Angeles hasn’t been much better than Vancouver in their last 10 with a 4-4-2 mark but the Kings just recently finished a long road trip. They have won two of three since coming home including a nice come from behind victory over the Blues. Jonathan Quick’s .921 save percentage is far and away better than Ryan Miller’s .906. The Kings should cement themselves in third place over the Canucks in the next few weeks.
Sharks and Ducks Fight For Division
However, without Voynov and having played so many games the last few years, the Kings will have a tough time catching the Sharks and Ducks. San Jose and Anaheim are both on fire right now. The Ducks are 8-2-0 in their last 10 games and the Sharks are 8-1-1 in theirs. Currently Anaheim holds an eight point lead over the second place Sharks who have one game in hand. A San Jose regulation victory over Anaheim on New Years Eve and a win in their game in hand would make it just a four point lead. The race to avoid LA ought to go on throughout the season and will be fun to watch. Neither team wants to have to do what LA did and go through the other two Californian teams and the Blackhawks to get to the final. What are the chances that happens two years in a row? Not likely. Even honest Kings fans have to agree that the chances their team can do that again, particularly without Voynov, are extremely low.
Thus far this season the Ducks have only lost six games in regulation against teams not named the Sharks. If San Jose is to overtake Anaheim for first place, they will need some help from the rest of the league. The Sharks only get to fight the Ducks head-to-head and fist-to-head, two more times this season. Needless to say, they would be wise to win both those games in regulation. The second place finisher in the Pacific will have a tough, tough road to the Stanley Cup. Of course players rarely admit to wanting to avoid a certain team in the first round, as it is never wise to verbally imply that another opponent is easier or inferior but the Sharks and Ducks understand the deal. Finishing first, getting home ice, and avoiding the defending Champions is extremely beneficial.