For the second consecutive year, the Los Angeles Kings are going to have to face off with the President’s Trophy winners in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Granted, this time around is slightly different. Last year, the Kings had to face the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the playoffs, and they were largely written off because of the Canucks’ dominant regular season, as well as the fact that Vancouver had only been one game away from winning the championship the previous season.
When they upset the Canucks, it sent shockwaves through the hockey world, and the momentum propelled them forward and enabled them to knock off two other division champions in St. Louis and Phoenix en route to the title.
This season, the Kings are up against a slightly different challenge. At times last year, the victories piled up quickly and things looked almost effortless. This year, every win has been hard fought against the Blues and the San Jose Sharks, and fans of the team can expect much of the same when they take on the Chicago Blackhawks in the Conference Finals.
So which team has the edge in the key areas of what will be a tight series? Here are five matchups to keep an eye on as we move forward:
The “Underachievers”: Anze Kopitar vs. Jonathan Toews
The “underachiever” label is in quotation marks deliberately. Both players contribute to their teams in ways other than scoring, so in spite of what could be perceived as a lack of scoring (Toews has one goal in the playoffs, and Kopitar has two), they both remain integral to their team’s success.
We are giving the slight edge to Kopitar here for one simple reason: he has kept his composure better in these playoffs. Toews had a lackluster second round, to say the least, taking three penalties in the second period of Game 4 of the series, and his inability to deal adequately with the physical defense that guys like Henrik Zetterberg deployed against him show that he can be bested.
The Jacks of All Trades: Duncan Keith vs. Drew Doughty
Both of these defensemen are expected to give their teams a big chunk of minutes on a nightly basis, and in all areas as well. Whether on the power play, short-handed, or even strength, both guys have to be at the top of their games for their teams to have a chance to win, and both have been at their best in these playoffs.
The edge in this battle goes to Keith. Doughty didn’t do much offensively in the second round series against the Sharks, whereas Keith was a huge part of the Hawks’ power play clicking into place in Game 5 of their series. Couple that with the positive effect that Keith’s play had on his defensive partner Brent Seabrook, and it’s clear that he gives the Hawks a boost whenever he is on the ice.
The Americans: Dustin Brown vs. Patrick Kane
Other than nationality, these two don’t seem to have a lot in common. One plays a physical brand of hockey and is an influential leader in the locker room. The other is a finesse player whose game is predicated on speed and ability to facilitate on offense.
So which of those two does the job better? The answer, at least in the playoffs, is both. Kane has been averaging nearly a point per game, and has seven assists in 13 games. Brown has 57 hits in the Kings’ 13 games, and has the most among American-born players that are still alive in the playoff hunt.
The Glove Men: Jonathan Quick vs. Corey Crawford
Both goalies have been excellent in the playoffs, with Quick sporting a 1.50 GAA and a .948 save percentage, while Crawford has a 1.70 GAA and .938 save percentage.
Their circumstances coming into the playoffs couldn’t have been more different, however. Quick, the reigning Conn Smythe winner as playoff MVP, was fully expected to carry his team again, while Crawford was under pressure by backup Ray Emery in the eyes of some fans after both players put up similar numbers during the regular season.
While Quick has met the enormous expectations laid upon him, Crawford has achieved more than some fans were willing to believe he could. While that is really impressive and makes this a much closer matchup than could have been expected before the playoffs began, Quick still has the edge in this category. He has shown over and over the past two years that he can carry his team when they need him the most, and Crawford hasn’t quite gotten to that point yet for the Hawks.
The Tacticians: Darryl Sutter vs. Joel Quenneville
One coach led his team to a championship last year even though they had to win a slew of games on the road to do so. The other led his team to the best record in the regular season, a record points streak to begin the campaign, and is a nominee for the Jack Adams Award for Coach of the Year.
So which one of them has the edge in this series? It’s a tough call, but we’ll go with Quenneville in a squeaker. He just took out Wings’ head coach Mike Babcock, who is recognized throughout the league as the best strategist in the game, for the first time in his career. He also was responsible for the many adjustments in lines that led to the Hawks’ offense escaping the stagnation they experienced in going down 3-1 in the series, and because of that, he has the edge.