While the Vancouver Canucks were never in danger of not making the playoffs this year, the Kings had to scrap and claw to get in and even had a late chance at winning the Pacific Division for the first time in club history, and their first division crown in 21 years. But the Kings ultimately are the eighth seed in the Western Conference, which isn’t as bad as it seems, with the West being so stacked from top to bottom. The two teams will drop the puck on tonight in Vancouver, but first, let’s preview the series position by position.
The Kings may have thought at the beginning of the year that they’d be as good as the Canucks down the middle, but if this season has shown anything, it’s that the Canucks still have better centers. Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kessler played to their strength this season, with Sedin leading the league in assists, and Kessler quietly having another stout season. The Kings on the other hand, saw a decline in production from Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards and Jarret Stoll. Kopitar had 51 assists, but his goals were down, and he proved again to be streaky at times, including droughts when the Kings needed him the most during their scoring swoons. Richards was a shell of himself in his first season in LA, but it could be his adaption to the Kings system. That wasn’t the case for Stoll however, who plummeted in production from 20 goals to just six. Add in the Kings’ troubles at taking faceoffs, and the centers are clear-cut: Advantage Vancouver
The Canucks’ keys to winning the series with the Kings will be the play of their wings. Daniel Sedin might not be a go for Game 1, as he didn’t practice with the team on Tuesday while he tries to recover from a concussion that he suffered weeks ago. Alexandre Burrows has been hot in Sedin’s absence, but after that, the Canucks’ have a significant drop off in production. David Booth scored in the Canucks’ finale against Edmonton, but that goal snapped a 10-game pointless streak, and he had just 13 points in the second half of the season. For the Kings, everything hinges on the health of Jeff Carter. Carter says he’ll play, while Darryl Sutter is unsure. Carter was a big reason why the Kings went on a run to make the playoffs, but at the time he went down in Calgary, he was pointless in five games. Justin Williams had a rock solid final week for the Kings and has played well at times on both the first line and third line, as the Kings’ most consistent winger. But once you get into the depth of the Kings’ roster, the lack of offense really hurts the Kings. Kyle Clifford had a huge series against the San Jose Sharks a year ago, and if the Kings are going to make noise this year, they’ll need another unsung hero. Advantage Vancouver
On defense, the Kings are the best team in the Western Conference in terms of their top six blueliners. Willie Mitchell and Rob Scuderi are two of the league’s best shutdown defencemen and the birth of Slava Voynov has a playmaking defenceman has made live without Jack Johnson bearable for the Kings. As for Drew Doughty? Well, he’s still leaving much to be desired, but the same was said last season, and he came out with a four-point game in Game 2 on the road in San Jose. He’s been a big part of the Kings’ limited success in the playoffs the last two years, and if he’s on, the Kings’ chances of winning skyrockets. Defensively, the Canucks are strong as anyone, with Alexander Edler being the attacking blueliner, and Kevin Bieksa being the grinder that opposing teams love to hate. Vancouver hasn’t missed Christian Ehrhoff, and Dan Hamhuis having a career year is a big reason for it. The Kings get the nod head-to-head here, but by no means is it a knock on the Canucks, as they finished the league fourth in goals against. Advantage Los Angeles
Ah, goaltending, the most talked about aspect of the Kings-Canucks matchup. The Kings roll into Vancouver with Vezina finalist Jonathan Quick, while the Canucks start the much discussed Roberto Luongo, over heralded understudy Cory Schneider. There’s been plenty of discussion from the national media that Schneider could end up being Alain Vigneault’s favorite by the time the series ends. He sported a 1.96 goals against this season in 33 games that spelled Luongo. That’s practically even with Jonathan Quick’s numbers(1.95 GAA), but Quick started 69 games for the Kings. The idea that Quick could get burned out is valid, considering that Jonathan Bernier started just 13 games for the Kings this year, down from 22 a year ago. Sutter has really equated Quick to being his Mikka Kiprusoff, and while it’s worked for Quick in the regular season, given Quick’s past postseason failures, it makes you wonder if he’ll have enough gas. What benefits Quick is the series schedule however, with a ton of off days, as there are five off days surrounding Game 4, should the series last long enough to five games. Given the play of Quick as the league’s best goalie in 2012, the edge here goes to the Kings solely on the fact that Quick only has the pressure of himself on him, as opposed to Luongo who is playing for his job, and the most critical fans in all of the hockey. Advantage Los Angeles
The Kings come in as massive underdogs, and only Kings-homer Barry Melrose is siding with them to upset the Canucks. There’s a reason for that, as the Canucks can adapt well to the Kings’ grind-it-out style, while the Kings will struggle if the Canucks want to play up-tempo. In November, the Kings were shredded by the Canucks power play, after taking costly first period penalties, and if the Kings shoot themselves in the foot with bad penalties in playoffs, leaving Jonathan Quick out to dry, it’ll be a quick series in favor the Canucks. On the contrary, if they stategize against Vigneault’s precision tactics, the Kings will have a chance, as long as Quick performs like the goaltender he’s been all season. It should be an interesting series, especially to see the progression of both teams over the last two seasons, but this one ends with the Canucks on top, again.
Prediction: Canucks in Six