(8)Los Angeles Kings vs. (1)Vancouver Canucks NHL Playoffs Preview

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(8)Los Angeles Kings vs. Vancouver Canucks(1)

Most hockey pundits are predicting a snoozer of a series here, but I actually think it could be one of the most intriguing of the first round, at least for the hockey connoisseur. The Vancouver Canucks are the Vancouver Canucks, a balanced, exciting team with speed and skill galore. And coming in to Vancouver to face them, these are not your great grandfather’s brother’s Los Angeles Kings.

Traditionally, the Kings may not be the most high-flying team, but the additions of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter have brought some different dimensions to the team’s game. The Kings have finally added some star power to their strong foundation of defensive structure and size, and that makes them an intriguing team to watch. If they can get their new-found skill, their physicality, and their poised defensive game all going full-force at the same time, they have the potential to not just beat Vancouver, but be one of the best, most complete teams in the west.

However, the Kings have not demonstrated the ability to play well in all facets of the game with any consistency this season, and if there is one team that has, it’s their opponent. The Canucks can come at you with four lines and three defensive pairs that don’t have many weaknesses, and where the Kings top forwards, such as Anze Kopitar and Mike Richards, are known more for their two-way games, the Canucks top guns have consistently dominated offensively. Henrik Sedin once again led the entire NHL in assists, same as last year, and twin brother Daniel scored 30 goals in 72 games after scoring 41 last year.

The only Kings forward to score 30-plus goals last year was Jeff Carter, and no one scored 40 or more. The trend has continued this season, as the Kings lack a single 30-goal-scorer. Anze Kopitar leads the team with only 25. It won’t surprise you, then, that the Kings have struggled to score for most of the season, finishing the season 29th out of 30 teams in scoring. Now you know why hockey pundits aren’t picking this as their most anticipated series.

However, the Kings offense did improve significantly after Jeff Carter was acquired at the trade deadline, along with the call-ups of Jordan Nolan and Dwight King from the Kings minor league affiliate. These additions helped to allocate everyone to their ideal roles, and since then the Kings seem to be playing a bit more aggressively and with more confidence.

Still, with the 5th ranked offense in the NHL, 1st in the Western Conference, the Vancouver Canucks have to be given the edge offensively, and nowhere is this more clear than in the disparity between the two team’s power-plays. The Canucks have an extremely well-choreographed power-play under coach Alain Vigneault, headlined on the ice by the Sedin twins. They move together fluidly as a five-man unit, cutting in and out of the defense, going from one set-play to another, attacking in different ways until the puck goes in, all on the same page. This highly-successful formula resulted in the league’s 4th ranked power-play, 2nd in the western conference.

Everything the Canucks power-play does well, or does, period, the Kings power-play fails at, or does not even attempt at all. The Kings are often found stagnant on their man-advantage, seemingly without a plan, unprepared to do anything but dump the puck into the offensive zone, attempt to retrieve it, and pass it to the point for a shot on net. Simplicity on the power-play can be a good thing, but not when it’s so poorly executed, not without any productive movement at all.

The Kings power-play did start to have success in the last two games of the season against the San Jose Sharks, after coach Sutter put Willie Mitchell on the point for the 1st unit, but that success may have just been because the Sharks have the 29th ranked penalty kill. It will be much more difficult for the Kings to carry over that brief success on the power-play against the Vancouver Canucks’ 6th ranked penalty kill, but they will need to if they want to win the series. Coach Daryl Sutter may keep with the Willie Mitchell experiment to start the series as long as it remains effective. Mitchell is nowhere near as naturally talented as the previous 1st unit power-play quarterback, Drew Doughty, but power-plays are much more about decision-making and smarts than most fans realize, and I was impressed with Mitchell’s hockey sense on the power-play. He seems to have a better sense than Doughty of when to shoot and when to pass, and where, which may just give him the edge to stay on the top power-play unit over the flashier Doughty. Kings fans have to hope it continues to give their overall power-play an edge, too.

The one aspect of the Kings game that has matched the Canucks statistically this season is their penalty kill, which finished 4th best in the NHL, tops in the west. This reflects not only on the Kings balanced group of defensemen, but on the defensive ability of their forwards not named Dustin Penner. Anze Kopitar has played a huge role on the Kings power-play all year, and his combination of size, speed, and smarts is as dominant killing penalties as it is territorially at even-strength. Jarret Stoll and Mike Richards have also played well very up front, while once again Willie Mitchell has shown his value on the back-end, leading the Kings in shorthanded ice time. Like Kopitar, he plays a smart and economical defensive game, and he uses his long stick to great effect terrorizing passing and shot lanes.

As an aside, Mike Richards is one of the best shorthanded goal-scorers in NHL history, and if he can get one in this series against the Canucks, shorthanded goals have been known to change the outlook of a playoff series unlike anything else.

However, while the Canucks have the advantage in special teams, overall, do their far superior power-play, the series will likely be decided five-on-five. Or so we can only hope. Never put it past the referees to decide a series instead of letting the players do so. Vancouver boasts the 4th best 5-on-5 Goals For/Agaist ratio in the NHL with a 1.19 number, good for 2nd in the west, while the Kings are 17th at 0.98 goals scored for every 1 goal against. The Kings are actually ahead of Vancouver with their 121 goals allowed at 5-on-5, 2nd in the NHL only to St. Louis while the Canucks are 6th at 135, but unsurprisingly the Canucks have a huge advantage in 5-on-5 goals for, ranking 8th with 160 compared to Los Angeles’ 2nd worst total of 118.

This large disparity in goals scored both on the power-play and at even-strength suggests that the Canucks have the advantage in top-end skill, meaning their very top guys that they put on the power-play, and in-depth of scoring. The Canucks boast one of the best third-lines in the NHL, with the team’s signature speed on both wings in Chris Higgins and Jannik Hansen, centered by defensive specialist Sammy Pahlsson, who has been a pleasant surprise on offense since the Canucks acquired him at the trade defense. The L.A. Kings have definitely improved their depth this season by calling up the likes of Jordan Nolan, but the Kings just-put-together third and fourth lines may have trouble matching up against the much more established and multi-dimensional depth lines of the Canucks.

In goal, I believe most hockey pundits have overrated Jonathan Quick. He’s had a great season statistically playing in a very sheltered system that almost any NHL goaltender would excel in. Moreover, even if he put up his great numbers on a bad team, which, again, he hasn’t, it’s only one season. Roberto Luongo has been proven himself to be an elite goaltender year after year. And as I’ve said multiple times, whenever the Kings forget their defensive structure and leave Quick to actually make difficult saves and really, save their bacon, he looks ordinary. Bad, even.

Last postseason, the Kings spotted Quick a 4-0 lead against the San Jose Sharks in game-three of a tied series, and he couldn’t pull out the victory for them. Now it’s almost a year later, and Quick just blew two more leads against the Sharks, letting in more questionable goals. Did the Kings play poorly late in all of these games in question after taking the lead? Yes. But that’s the point, Quick keeps demonstrating that he’s only as good as his team plays in front of him. Is he a good goaltender? Yes. But a great goaltender does not lose game-three last postseason, or the last two games of this regular season. Quick did. A great goaltender plays well even when his team plays poorly, and Quick has not proven to me he can do that yet when it matters.

Luongo, however, while he has also played behind good defensive teams historically, especially the last two seasons, I believe he has proven to be more than a reflection of the team in front of him. He has the entire physical package, the size, reflexes, and fundamentals. And whenever we see something that looks to be a chink in his armor, we tend to find out later that it was just his goalie coach screwing around with him, also known in Vancouver as trying to improve his game further.

Last season it was having Luongo play deep in his net, which I was never a fan of. This season they seem to have wised up, having Luongo only play deep in his net when there is the possibility of a cross-crease pass. I believe this is a better strategy; it allows Luongo to come out and challenge a shooter when the shooter has no “pass options,” which is something that should go without saying for any goaltender. This means Luongo may be even more dangerous than last postseason, where he was mostly excellent in his run up to the Cup Final.

I believe the goaltending in Vancouver right now is on another level compared to Los Angeles. Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider are, like the team in front of them, just so well-rounded, with very few weak spots in their games physically. Mentally is where Jonathan Quick might have the edge over Luongo, just because there is so much pressure on him, but then again, Quick is the one who keeps blowing leads in important games and letting his team down, not Luongo.

Unless Luongo lets in a few bad goals, the Vancouver media goes crazy and blows it all out of proportion, and Luongo lets it get to him, I think Luongo is better than Quick.

Match-ups To Watch

Ryan Kesler vs. Mike Richards. Three seasons ago, Mike Richards was the up and coming two-way Canadian center everyone was talking about. He was being talked about in the same breath as Crosby, not necessarily in overall talent, but in his ability to lead and impact a team in the playoffs. Since then, Richards’ point outputs have decreased significantly every season, and now the bigger, faster, more physically talented Ryan Kesler is the name on everyone’s lips when it comes to prototypical two-way centers, fresh off a 41-goal-season and Selke win. But Kesler has fallen back to earth a bit this season, too, after undergoing offseason hip-surgery, and it will be interesting to see which player can regain his best form. The reason for Kesler’s down year is know and well-publicized, but not so much when it comes to Mike Richards. Has he simply slacked off in the weight room since his career year in 2008-2009? Has he had injuries of his own that slowed him down, that we just don’t know about? The answer to why Richards has declined so drastically in what should have been his prime playing years at age 27 is probably what could best clue us in on what to expect from him in this playoff series, but since we don’t know that answer, at least I don’t, we’ll have to wait and see.

The Kings big three vs. the Canucks big three. That’s Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, and Mike Richards vs. Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin (if healthy), and Ryan Kesler.

Can Anze Kopitar take the reigns of his team and become more than “just” a good 1st line center with size who plays well at both ends of the ice? Will we see more Evgeni Malkin from him or more Martin Hanzal?

Likewise on the Vancouver end, if the Kings get physical with Henrik Sedin, or even somehow find a way to take away his bread and butter passing game, how will Henrik react?

The depth lines. It will be interesting to see how the likes of Colin Fraser, Dustin Penner, Kyle Clifford, and Jordan Nolan, mostly spare parts and recent AHL call-ups, match up against the much more established depth lines of the Canucks. Jarret Stoll and Sammy Pahlson may cancel each other out at the center of both team’s third-lines; in fact you could even give the Kings the advantage there, at least offensively, but how will the Kings’ third-line wingers, Dustin Penner and Kyle Clifford, match up against the speedy Jannik Hansen and Chris Higgins on the Canucks’ third-line? Wingers vs wingers, if I’m L.A., I do not like that matchup one bit. I can already see Jannik Hansen speeding by Dustin Penner in the neutral zone. It just takes that split-second where Dustin Penner loses focus, or forgets who he is supposed to be back-checking, for Hansen or Higgins to blow by him. The Kings may not need to worry about the Canucks’ fourth-line so much, although they have some definite wild-cards in Zack Kassian and perhaps Byron Bitz who could end up making a difference, but when I look at the third lines side-by-side, I see trouble for the Kings on the wings. Maxim Lapierre is also a very underrated player who could play on any of the Canucks’ lines, that the Kings will have to worry about.

Drew Doughty vs. Alexander Edler on the power-play. Both defensemen are smooth-skating and strong, with excellent hands offensively, but neither seem to possess a natural understanding for quarterbacking a power-play. They have both been given the job by default, based on their incredible talent, but who can start pulling the right strings in terms of making the right decisions, the timely passes, and getting their shots through?

The battle of the third-defensive pairings. With the underrated Keith Ballard out with a concussion, Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault has some decisions to make about who his #5 and #6 defensemen are. Is it Andrew Alberts and Chris Tanev? Marc-Andre Gragnani? Whoever it is, they’re doubtful to have as much chemistry as Matt Greene and Alec Martinez on the Kings. In my opinion, Martinez has played the best hockey of his career down the stretch, and while Matt Greene is still good for a game-deciding penalty pretty regularly, he seems to be moving better than he has in the past. As much as I’m not a fan of Greene’s game, the Kings could have an advantage here over the Canucks’ third-pairing, provided Greene does not take bad penalties. Chris Tanev impressed me last season against the Sharks, however, and if he plays well, he could tilt the third-pairing match-up in the Canucks favor.

Canucks’ Biggest Strengths

The combination of speed, skill, and all-around ability throughout their roster. The Sedin’s are dominant players whether they have elite speed or not, but after them, the Canucks have almost nothing but fast players. Alex Burrows, Mason Raymond, Ryan Kesler, David Booth, Chris Higgins, Jannik Hansen… only Sammy Pahlsson breaks the chain of elite speedsters from Burrows on line-one to Hansen on line-three. The Canucks even have speed on defense. Kevin Bieksa, Dan Hamhuis, and Alex Edler can all skate very well, while Sami Salo brings more size to the equation.

The Canucks have speed, skill, and hockey sense at both ends of the ice throughout most of their lineup, and without sacrificing too much size. It’s no wonder they are such a well-balanced team.

Coaching, structure, and cohesiveness. In addition to being one of the most skilled teams in the NHL, this Canucks team is an extremely well-oiled machine. They play just as well defensively as they do on offense; they kill penalties just as well as they score on the power-play. Only the San Jose Sharks have been better on faceoffs than the Canucks. This is a coaching staff, and really an organization, that leaves no stone unturned in preparing their team. Their talent is so well-drilled and consistent, I believe their experience, and their ability to stick to their game plan, gives them a sizable advantage over the Kings.

Kings’ Biggest Strengths

• One of the Kings biggest strengths is just that, strength. Size and strength. The Kings have big forwards that forecheck and cycle the puck well, and big defenseman who defend the forecheck and defend the cycle very well. That forecheck will be especially important in this series. The best way to defend against the likes of the Sedin’s is to make them defend. If the Kings forwards can stick to their game plan and keep the puck below the Canucks’ goal line, it will wear them down and mitigate some of their advantages offensively. Likewise, when the Canucks do manage to get some attack time against the Kings, Willie Mitchell’s long stick and the rest of the Kings defense will have to stay sharp. And I believe they will, for the most part. It’s those intermittent lapses in focus that the Kings suffer from, the Canucks don’t seem to as much, that worry me from the Kings perspective.

The top-six forwards. This was not always a strength for the Kings, but now that they have Mike Richards and Jeff Carter in the fold, I think it is. I think the Kings have a very unique mix of two-way forwards and skill in the top-six. It used to be just the two-way guys like Anze Kopitar with not nearly enough top-end offensive skill, but Dean Lombardi has evened out the mix a bit with his moves, especially with bringing in Jeff Carter. Carter’s ability to support and enhance the Kings bread and butter on offense–the cycle game, while add some of his own new sniper elements to the team, is very important. Now you have the two excellent two-way centers in Anze Kopitar and Mike Richards, the multi-dimensional two-way play-making winger in Justin Williams, the physical two-way second-line winger in Dustin Brown, and the pure sniper, Jeff Carter. AHL call-up Dwight King has also brought some good puck-possession ability down below the opposition’s goal line, along the boards, although he started to look slow to me for the first time through the neutral zone against San Jose late in the regular season.

Canucks’ Biggest Weaknesses

• The third-defense pair. Canucks do not have many weaknesses, but if you can point one out without nitpicking, it would be the third-defense pair. With Christian Ehrhoff leaving in free agency last summer, and now Keith Ballard getting injured, that was their third-pair for much of last season. I don’t think they will lose as much as some think by putting Tanev or Alberts in, but neither can replace Ballard, who has played well this season.

Star forwards after the Sedin’s. Don’t get me wrong, I think the Canucks have some of the best forward depth in the NHL when they are all going. But with Ryan Kesler struggling to make his mark offensively this season like he did last year, you worry that the offensive burden is all left on the Sedin’s, and then the depth. Because after the Sedin’s and Kesler, and I suppose Burrows, what makes the Canucks forward depth so good is the quantity of good players. David Booth, Mason Raymond, Chris Higgins, Jannik Hansen, etc. All good players, but none are great, not even by second-line standards. Even David Booth, the biggest of those names I mentioned, does not compare favorably to the 2nd liners on a team like the San Jose Sharks, Chicago Blackhawks, or really even the Los Angeles Kings. Booth is not as good as Jeff Carter or Mike Richards. He’s not as good as Logan Couture or Martin Havlat, or Patrick Sharp.

That’s why, even though the Canucks have great forward depth, Canucks GM Mike Gillis was reportedly still looking to add another big-name top-six forward, like a Bobby Ryan. It’s not that the Canucks don’t have enough offense to win the Cup with as currently constructed; they do. It’s just that after the Sedin’s, Burrows, and Kesler–really just after the Sedin’s and Burrows, as Kesler has struggled offensively, the Canucks do not have another elite top-six forward in terms of offense. They don’t have that point-per-game guy to put on their second line. There’s a fair drop-off to David Booth.

It’s nitpicking, but I think if you wanted to turn this Canucks squad from a great team to a dream team, it’s still missing one more Bobby Ryan or Jarome Iginla level forward.

Kings’ Biggest Weaknesses

Speed. The Canucks are a very fast team, both in terms of foot speed and the pace they play at, and the Kings are not. Definitely not. The Kings are actually at their best when they slow the game down, when they play a calm game out of their zone that leads into a forechecking game offensively. If the Kings can stick to their forte, their best game plan, they can survive their speed disadvantage.

• However, the second biggest weakness for the Kings is that they don’t seem capable of sticking to their game plan when that deciding moment comes. They couldn’t do it against the Sharks last season in game 3, or against the Sharks at the end of this regular season. A team as gifted defensively as this Kings team should not be blowing so many leads in big games, but there’s something about the Kings where you almost expect it. Maybe it’s that their top defenseman Drew Doughty, his talent responsible for a lot of what they do so well defensively, also comes with terrible defensive fundamentals that seem to rear their head at the worst possible times, maybe because it’s only when you’re really being pressed by a desperate team that your underlying weaknesses show up and hurt you the most. That probably applies to the whole team and really tells the story. When this Kings team is pressed by a good team, they’re just not as fundamentally sound or skilled as the Canucks.

Kings X-Factors:

• I could go with Jeff Carter, Drew Doughty, Mike Richards, even Anze Kopitar. That’s the problem with the Kings, everyone is an X-Factor to an extent. You’re never what what you’ll get. I know Kopitar will be a two-way beast in the middle, a great territorial player, in the same way that Martin Hanzal is for the Coyotes, but Kopitar is supposed to be better than Hanzal. He’s supposed to bring everything Hanzal does, plus an extra level of skill and production. Will he? Yes, but I’m not if he will bring enough.

You could say the same things about Mike Richards. He’s a very smart, responsible player in the middle, and everything Kopitar does well for the Kings, Richards should do well, too, although to a lesser extent (besides his superior cleverness and play-making instincts offensively). But is that top-speed from a few years ago still there? Does he have that extra gear that he will need to create separation, and thus scoring chances? Will he continue to just be one of those good, subtle two-way players, like he has been all year, or can be something more than subtle? Can he make some big plays to go along with all the little ones?

Doughty, I feel he is starting to get his game back offensively. I mentioned that extra gear with Mike Richards that he seems to have lost, and it’s the same with Doughty. He had it his sophomore season, and he hasn’t had it since. Is it starting to come back just a bit? I think maybe it is. Will it be enough to dominate a good team like the Canucks? Probably not.

Doughty should have a good series offensively, but again, will it be enough? Both he and Mike Richards have taken big steps back from where they were at two or three seasons ago, which is why their work ethic has been questioned across hockey circles. For the Kings to beat the Canucks, they will need the “vintage” version of both these players, and I’m not sure they can deliver.

If it were just a mental thing, that would be a much easier fix, but it seems to me that the true problem with both these guys is that they have let their strength and fitness level slide since their career years. And if that hasn’t been remedied already, it’s too late, at least until next year. But, of course, if they didn’t care enough to remedy it for this year, what makes you think they will for next year? Being an elite player in the National Hockey League is a lot of work. Not everyone is up to it.

• Jeff Carter. He’s incredibly talented. He might have the best wrist shot in the NHL. The question is, can he get himself into positions where can use it more than once or twice in a series? Can his teammates and his coaches find ways to get him into those positions where he can actually use his best weapon?

Canucks X-Factors:

• David Booth. He had 10 shots in one of the final regular season games, and with Ryan Kesler struggling to score, someone will have to step up besides the Sedin’s. I’m expecting a very good showing out of the Canucks’ third-line, as well as Maxim Lapierre if he gets the ice time, but Booth has the skillset where, if he plays a hard, physical game, he can be very effective. If he can not only get himself going, but Kesler, too, that would be like winning the lottery for Canucks fans.

• Ryan Kesler. It’s been over six months since his offseason hip surgery. Can he get his game back to where it was last season? (Will he ever?)

Overall Thoughts and Series Prediction

Could the Kings win this series? Absolutely. Anyone who says otherwise is underestimating them. I love their combination of two-way studs and skill guys up front, sometimes in the same player. This is a spunky, unique team. Anze Kopitar and Mike Richards on the same team. Add in one of the NHL’s annual hits leaders in Dustin Brown. If only Richards would hit like he used to and Dustin Penner would hit like he never has, it would be an even spunkier team, but it’s still very unique as is.

I think Willie Mitchell has had a fantastic season. Jarret Stoll struggled early in the year, but he had an excellent series vs the Sharks last postseason, and he’s been great down the stretch again. I expect a good series from him.

The center depth is excellent. Jeff Carter and Drew Doughty are such dominant physical talents; if they can just maximize their abilities in terms of actual goal production, it could turn the series in the Kings favor.

There’s a lot to like with this Kings team, a lot more than people realize. It would not shock me to see them put everything together and pull off an upset.

However, I believe that, in all likelihood, the margin for error for the Kings is just too small when you consider that they are a team that tends to make errors at the worst times, get flustered, have meltdowns, and the end-result is that they blow leads. They just let games slip. So even if the Kings can outplay the Canucks over a seven-game series, which is very difficult in itself, odds are they still won’t outscore the Canucks. That’s how I look at it.

Just consider the Kings’ last two games of the regular season against the San Jose Sharks. I believe the Kings outplayed the Sharks, overall, those last two games, yet they lost both, one in a shootout, one in overtime, which inspired me to tweet something along the lines of, “once again the Kings look better at playing, but the Sharks are still better at winning.” Well, the Canucks may be better at playing and winning than the Sharks, so if the Kings have these types of problems against the Sharks, I can’t see that changing against the Canucks.

The way I see it, if the Canucks outplay the Kings, obviously the Kings will lose. And if the Kings outplay the Canucks, the Kings will probably still lose. That’s the challenge such a talented, well-drilled, structured, and consistent team like the Canucks will pose for a team like the Kings, one that isn’t as well-drilled or consistent.

I just think that even if the Kings make it past the hurdle of being the slower, less-talented team than the Canucks, the Canucks will still be the better coached, more consistent team, and they will still pull out the series based on those virtues. I think the Canucks are an extremely well-oiled machine, and the Kings aren’t quite there yet.

I do think the Kings size, and their unique roster mix, matches up well against the Canucks, or as well as any team could match up against them given the speed disadvantage almost every team finds themselves at against the Canucks, but the Canucks just have too much going for them. I think even when it’s going well for the Kings, even when you’re seeing a lot of shifts spent in the Canucks defensive zone, the Kings will probably have to dominate for 15 minutes just to get a goal, where it will only take a couple for the Canucks to get it back. That’s the type of scenario I think you’ll see. I believe the puck-possession to actual goals ratio will be heavily in the Canucks favor, if that makes sense, so even if the Kings manage to win the possession battle, I expect the Canucks win when it comes to the score.

Series Prediction

I predict the Vancouver Canucks will beat the Los Angeles Kings in 6 games.

Written by Shark Circle

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