The 2011-12 Western Conference Final will feature a matchup of two Pacific Division teams, the Los Angeles Kings and the Phoenix Coyotes. Los Angeles hasn’t been to the Western Conference final since 1993. The Phoenix Coyotes have never been there. Suffice it to say, this is pretty much uncharted territory for the current incarnations of both teams. Both the Kings and the Coyotes are fueled by their elite goaltenders, Jonathan Quick (Los Angeles) and Mike Smith (Phoenix) and strong defense, which will likely make for a tightly played, low-scoring series.
Goals: Antoine Vermette (5)
Points: Antoine Vermette (9)
Goaltending: Mike Smith- 11 starts, 8-1-2, 1.77 Goals Against Average, .948 Save %
Goals: Dustin Brown (6)
Points: Dustin Brown (11)
Goaltending: Jonathan Quick- 9 starts, 8-1, 1.55 GAA, .949 Save %
2011-12 Head-to-head Matchup: Division rivals that met six times during the season, the season series between the Kings and Coyotes offers no clues as to how their playoff series will turn out. Each team won three of the six games played.
Offense: This was not an area of strength for either team heading into the playoffs. Los Angeles had the 29th ranked offense (2.29 goals/game) in the NHL this year, the worst of any team in the postseason. Phoenix was marginally better with a 2.56 goals/game average, but still ranked in the bottom half of the league (18th). The postseason, however, has been an entirely different story for Los Angeles. They’re averaging three goals scored per game, and 15 of the 20 players who have suited up for the Kings have scored a goal this postseason. They’re led by team captain Dustin Brown, who has six goals in the playoffs so far. Phoenix’s goals-per-game (2.64) hasn’t improved much from the regular season, but they’ve gotten nice all-around production from all lines, as five of their forwards have at least three goals. Still, Los Angeles has been better at producing offense, and that’s even after having to face the Jennings-Trophy winning Blues in the second round (Jennings Trophy is given to the team that allows the fewest goals in the NHL during the regular season).
Advantage: Los Angeles
Defense: Both teams excel at getting the first goal, then working to protect that lead. Phoenix didn’t lose a game in their second round series against Nashville when they scored first; same goes for Los Angeles in their semi-final tilt versus St. Louis. However, one thing that is troubling about the Coyotes is their tendency to give up a high volume of shots. Phoenix is the worst team in the playoff so far in that category, having surrendered an average of 36 shots on goal per game. Los Angeles hasn’t been stellar in that area either, as they’ve given up 30 shots on goal per game in the postseason so far. It’s tough to say if either team is really superior in this category.
Goaltending: This is the strong suit of both teams. Mike Smith has been phenomenal for the Coyotes so far, surrendering only 21 goals on 400 shots, good for a 94.8% save percentage and a 1.77 goals-against average through 11 postseason games. Incredibly, Jonathan Quick actually tops those numbers. Through nine games, Quick has a 1.55 goals-against average, and a 94.5% save percentage after allowing only 14 goals on 274 shots. Both netminders have been stellar throughout the playoffs- this is a dead heat.
Special Teams: The powerplay is an area in which both teams have struggled. Phoenix has a mere three power-play goals on 31 extra-man chances (16.8%); Los Angeles is actually worse, having netted only one power-play goal on 47 man-advantages (8.5%). As bad as both teams are at scoring power-plays goals, each is equally strong at killing off penalties. Los Angeles has allowed only three power-play scores on 38 penalty kills (92.1% kill rate), while Phoenix has allowed only four power-play goals on 38 penalty kills (89.2% kill rate). Suffice it to say, fans probably won’t be seeing a whole lot of power-play goals in the Western Conference final this year. However, there is one final statistic to take into account: shorthanded goals. As poor as the Kings have been at capitalizing on power-play chances, they’ve been quite good at scoring when their opponent has the extra attacker. Los Angeles has netted four short-handed goals during the playoff this year, while Phoenix has none- something that gives the Kings an edge in this category.
Advantage: Los Angeles
Prediction: This is going to be a close, hard fought series, with most, if not all games being decided by one goal. More than likely, a few games will head into overtime. Both teams’ outstanding goaltenders will keep them in every game, but what will likely pull the Los Angeles Kings ahead, and into their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 1993 is their offense. They proved they can score on the St. Louis Blues during the semifinals- a team that allowed the fewest goals in the entire regular season- so the Kings can score on anyone. They’ve gotten goals from fifteen of their skaters this postseason. Phoenix has had a magical run, but Los Angeles is the hottest team in the playoffs right now, and their combination of elite goaltending and finally-awakened offense would be too much for any team they’d be facing right now.
Forecast: Los Angeles in six.
By Arun Morace