And Then There Were Two – How The Los Angeles Kings Matchup With The Phoenix Coyotes
It occurs to me that we haven’t talked about the Phoenix Coyotes yet. Oh sure, we podcasted about it, but half the population is about as capable of listening to something more than 2 minutes long as it is going a mile while driving without looking at their cell phones.
What are the facts? Well, Jimmy, the facts are things that no one can argue about. Which means the facts basically boil down to “goals scored”, “goals allowed” and “Paul Bissonnette is better at Twitter than hockey”. So the “facts” portion of this post will be short-lived.
The Kings have scored 27 goals in 9 games and allowed only 14. Phoenix has scored 29 goals in 11 games and allowed 21. That’s 3 per game for the Kings and 1.56 against and for the Coyotes 2.64 for and 1.91 against. Among the remaining teams, the Kings are tied for 1st in goals and are first in goals against. The Coyotes are right behind them, 2nd in goals for and 2nd in goals against. Think this is going to be a fun matchup? If your idea of fun is a series that will likely be more exciting than the eventual Cup finals, then yeah, sure. If your idea of fun is a heart attack shift to shift, maybe this isn’t the round for you – and I speak to both Coyotes and Kings fans there.
Let’s take a gander at the Phoenix lineup.
Ray Whitney – Martin Hanzal – Radim Vrbata
This line can be dangerous if allowed too much space. While the Coyotes score by committee (this line has 7 goals and 15 points between them), this combo has everything. Size in Hanzal, speed and a shot in Vrbata and hands, veteran wiles and insane hockey IQ in Whitney. This line embodies what Phoenix does so well, balance.
Richards line. This is not the Coyotes quickest line and Richards’ isn’t ours. The way Penner is playing, he can give these wingers fits and Carter’s high IQ matches up as well. Richards and Hanzal already have a bit of bad blood as well, with their fight back in February. . If not the Richards line, then Kopitar takes this matchup. But truly this is because I want Kopitar saved for…
Mikkel Boedker – Antonie Vermette – Shane Doan
This is where the Coyotes do their damage. Shane Doan has been waiting his whole career for this playoff run, Vermette is a solid two way center with great face-off skills and Boedker has some hands on him. But really this line is about speed. Boedker is blazingly quick and Vermette has speed to burn as well. Combined with Doan’s physical play and front of net presence it’s no surprise that this line has been scoring a goal per game. Boedker was also the Coyotes’ overtime hero in the first round, scoring 2 of their OT goals.
Has to be Kopitar, Brown and Williams. Kopitar can overwhelm Vermette and the two captains get to go toe to toe. We don’t have the speed to match these guys, though Lewis comes close, but Brown is far from slow and truly this line needs to be held tight with gap control, at which Kopitar is practically unmatched, and be kept along the boards, if not out of our zone completely, which our top unit is fully capable of achieving. Finally, for our spiritual and goal leader to upstage Doan will go a long way towards winning the psychological battle. Secondary matchup goes to Stoll’s line as Dwight King’s size will be helpful against Doan and Lewis is outstanding defensively.
Taylor Pyatt – Boyd Gordon – Marc Pouilot
I’ll be honest. I don’t know a ton about Gordon or Pouilot. These guys are grinders and Pyatt is a big mamma jamma, but he’s slow. From what I can tell, this is a combination energy/shutdown line for the Coyotes and as such they need to be hit hard and often and be playing defense. Any of our lines can take these guys if need be.
Ideally, our 4th line. Pyatt isn’t a fighter really, but I’d like Jordan Nolan to goad him. Fraser and Gordon can grind each other to death and Richardson can skate circles around all these guys. My thinking here is that this matchup affords our 4th line the best opportunity to create offense. Secondary matchup goes to the Richards line.
Kyle Chipchura – Daymond Langkow – Gilbert Brule
A two way 4th line that has plenty of potential to score the timely goal, this line is another good example of balance. We know Langkow well from his time in Calgary and Brule, the near Kings buyout, has some solid hands when he isn’t too busy being left behind to use them. Chipchura is the fighter on the team and appropriately, the former Anaheim Duck punk. I was tempted to save Nolan for him, but regardless of matchup, Nolan v Chipchura seems like a sure thing.
King-Stoll-Lewis. Kong and Chipchura are both big boys and should have some epic collisions. Meanwhile Stoll is very familiar with Langkow as they used to be division rivals. Both two way centers who like to play on the boards, Stoll gets the edge due to speed and youth. Meanwhile Lewis can matchup with anyone defensively. Secondary matchup is 4th line on 4th line.
Defensively the Coyotes sport pairings of young stud Oliver Ekman-Larsson with Rostislav Klesla, Keith Yandle with Adrian Aucoin and Derek Morris with either Michael Rozsival or David Schlemko, usually Rozsival.
Oliver Ekman Larsson is smart defensively and a smooth skater. Klesla is a bruiser with a bad attitude who has been providing uncharacteristic offense. Yandle is the whole package, Aucoin a journeyman veteran, Morris a powerplay specialist who isn’t the player he once was and Rozsival is average across the board. The Coyotes defense plays a tight system that transitions very quickly. They do not have our size but they pass with the best of them, not by virtue of skill so much as that, like us, their forwards help out religiously on defense. It’s easy to make a pass when the forward is in perfect position to receive it, but hard when you breathe uncomfortably down the rotted, sunburned defensemen’s neck.
If we don’t get caught chasing their forwards, our forward group can overwhelm their defensemen with our size. Their bottom pairing has been playing well enough but can be forced into mistakes if pressured in their own zone. Their first pairing needs to be somewhat respected and controlled with spacing and by cutting off their outlet passes and the second pairing is good at moving the puck and needs to be pressured at the point.
Our defense, man to man, outmatches theirs in every respect, but again both these teams have gotten where they have based on a strong system and a team unity that allows them to strike at the right time and hold together under moments of adversity. As such, I believe this series will be played largely between the ears.
The Canucks and Blues cracked emotionally,and very quickly at that. That won’t happen with these two teams. The psychological battle will be careful and unfold slowly. Once an edge is gained it must be maintained as both teams can rally back from penalties, goals, hits or fights that go against them.
Coaching and leadership
Both teams have fantastic head coaches, but when it comes to leadership, I give the Kings the overall edge. While Dave Tippett has been with his group for longer, they have been playing his system for years, Darryl Sutter has a group that is replete with leaders. Dustin Brown is just one at the top of many. Willie Mitchell is a leader, Mike Richards is someone others naturally follow, Anze Kopitar has the respect and attention of his teammates and Matt Greene can rally a team with a hit or merely a blocked shot.
System-wise I am not the expert, but as with magnetism of the same charges, this series will either hold steady and equally press upon and repel each other, or a slight imbalance will be found and all hell will break loose, potential energy oozing and zooming at every opportunity. I think we truly have to call the coaching here a draw until further notice.
This series isn’t about the first goal, it’s about the second. But this is where the one factor I’ve left for last comes in.
Jonathan Quick vs Mike Smith. Both goalies have shut out the other this season. Both benefit from strong defenses and don’t see an inordinate amount of second chances. Quick has the edge in agility, Smith the edge in size, though Quick is quite large himself, he stays low and likes to challenge, whereas Smith stays deep and plays tall. Smith likes to gobble up rebounds whereas Quick like to control them to keep the play moving. Smith’s weakness is primarily his tendency to overplay the puck. He loves to come out across the dots and snag pucks. The Kings can either take this option away from him by carrying the puck more, or mess with him by varying the types of dump-ins they use. Some success has been seen against Smith with short, angled dump-ins meant to ricochet off the half wall at the dots instead of the typical play behind the goal line. As Quick is prone to the bungled play from misplacing the puck behind the net, Smith is gullible towards the bad goal from overplaying it in front.
Smith’s positioning deep in the net also leaves him heavily susceptible to high-tip plays. Of course the Phoenix skaters will have a lot to say about this, but this is where Doughty, Martinez and Voynov need to step up to the plate and truly run the points in a way they weren’t entirely needed to in the first two rounds. They need to draw the defending forwards high to open up space for our forwards to cruise comfortably near the tops of the circles. The low-to-high plays that Scribe hates so much very well may just be the key to solving the league’s second best goalie in the playoffs.
One of these guys is geared to fall off the tight rope they’ve been walking. Smart money goes to Smith for crashing back down to earth. Smith has not had to contend with a forward group like ours. Nashville doesn’t have our talent and the Blackhawks couldn’t get their act together. The Kings will have to score more dirty goals this round, a few of Richards now patented ‘catching the goalie off guard’ goals are also welcome anytime he gets the urge.
All in all this is shaping up to be an epic series. Two teams playing their best hockey of the season at the right time. Two teams finally grasping an identity that has eluded their franchises for years. Two teams who don’t understand the meaning of the word ‘stop’.
But only one team has a Vezina caliber goalie.
Only one has a captain leading the charge in every aspect of the game the way Cup winning captains do.
Only one gets to compete for the Cup.
The Coyotes may play the game the “right” way, but when it boils down to it they are outclassed at every position AND facing a team that is just as hot as they are, if not more-so, having made shorter work of tougher teams that the Coyotes have faced thus far.
One thing is certain, the fans are in for a hell of a ride.
Kings in 6.