Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - For the first time since the NHL's playoff
format was altered for the 1993-94 season, the Western Conference finals will
feature a battle between Pacific Division teams.
While that may not be the ideal matchup for hockey purists, it's hard to argue
that the Los Angeles Kings and Phoenix Coyotes didn't earn the right to play
for the West title.
The Central Division was considered to be the strongest division out West
during the regular season, as it sent four of five teams to the postseason and
all four of those clubs recorded over 100 points. Meanwhile, the Pacific placed
three teams in the playoffs this season, but none of them reached the 100-point
mark, including the Coyotes, who won the division crown with 97 points to earn
the West's No. 3 seed.
Along with the Coyotes and Kings, the San Jose Sharks were the other Pacific
Division team to qualify for the postseason. Although Dallas and Anaheim
finished outside the playoff picture, they were good enough to make the Pacific
the only division in the NHL with three teams over 90 points and none with less
As always, the true strength of an NHL club is determined in the postseason,
and by picking their way through the first two rounds, the Kings and Coyotes
have boosted the perception of their division considerably.
Phoenix took out a pair of Central teams in reaching Round 3, eliminating both
Chicago and Nashville in six games, respectively. Meanwhile, the eighth-seeded
Kings have blazed a more impressive trail to the conference finals, shocking
Vancouver -- the defending West champions and winner of consecutive
Presidents' trophies -- in five games before sweeping the second-seeded St.
Louis Blues in the second round.
In getting this far, both the Kings and Coyotes have achieved memorable firsts
for their respective franchises. Los Angeles earned its first four-game sweep
of a playoff series while ousting the Central Division champion Blues, and the
Coyotes, who also were known as the Winnipeg Jets from 1972-96, are in the
conference finals for the first time in franchise history.
Outside the Pacific Division connection, the biggest storyline heading into
this series is the tremendous goaltending both Western Conference finalists
have received in these playoffs.
Vezina Trophy finalist Jonathan Quick has posted a 1.55 goals against average
and .949 save percentage while leading the Kings to an 8-1 record through the
first two rounds.
As good as Quick has been, Mike Smith's goaltending probably has meant even
more to Phoenix. He has faced 400 shots over 11 games this postseason and
turned aside 379 of those pucks for a .948 save percentage and 1.77 GAA. Quick
was less busy in the first two rounds, facing 274 shots over his nine starts.
With those guys in the crease, goals likely will be hard to come by in the
West finals. The Kings and Coyotes, who played the last of six regular-season
meetings on Feb. 21, split the 2011-12 season series and L.A. outscored Phoenix
by a combined 13-12 margin in those encounters. However, nine of the 25 goals
scored over the six battles came when the Coyotes posted a 5-4 shootout
victory in the finale regular-season clash on Feb. 21.
While Los Angeles and Phoenix play in less than ideal hockey markets, that
should have little effect on the quality of play in this upcoming series. The
Coyotes finished just two points ahead of the Kings in the regular-season
standings and both teams have played their best hockey of 2011-12 over the
last few months.
Although the fan bases in both cities will never be confused with the rabid
crowds that cheer for the NHL's Original Six clubs, the Kings and Coyotes
should produce an excellent product on the ice.
These teams play similar styles that rely on toughness and goaltending, and
there's hardly ever a shortage of animosity when two divisional rivals meet at
any point in the playoffs.
Now that a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals is on the line, it's safe to say the
acrimony between these franchises will be at an all-time high.
The Sports Network