NHL Playoff Preview: Los Angeles Kings

Los Angeles Kings

The Los Angeles Kings have been a good team overlooked in a great conference this year. The Kings have 99 points and would be in third place if they were a team in the Eastern Conference; however, they are currently in the stacked Western Conference and have to settle with sixth place. Arguably one of the best sixth seeds in the history of the West, nobody wants to play the Kings in the playoffs. The Kings are only two years removed from winning the Stanley Cup and after acquiring big names at the trade deadline, they look to be a team poised for another run at the Cup.

Los Angeles Kings

Los Angeles Kings
6th in Western Conference, 3rd in Pacific Division

Last year, Jonathan Quick had a rough shortened season posting a measly .903 save percentage. However, once the playoffs came, Quick proved again that he only gets better under the big lights and shined in the postseason with a .934 save percentage. After winning the Cup in 2012, the Kings had another brilliant performance in 2013, going all the way to the Conference Finals where they inevitably lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. Although the Conference Finals win-loss ratio does not show it (Chicago won the series 4-1), the Kings and Blackhawks had a hard-fought series that saw three one-goal games including a double overtime slugfest that saw the Blackhawks come out on top. Coming into this season, the stakes were high again as the Kings, coached by Darryl Sutter, kept their main core group of players from the past two successful seasons intact.

This season progressed as it always does for the Kings under Sutter: they were consistent, consistent and more consistent. This season, the Kings were consistent at home and on the road posting a first place Corsi percentage at home (.594) and a second-best Corsi percentage on the road (.543). The goals scored for/against at home compared to the goals scored for/against on the road proved to be just as consistent as their Corsi percentages: in five-on-five play, the Kings scored 61 goals at home and allowed 49; on the road, the Kings scored 61 goals and allowed 48. The consistent play under Sutter’s heavy puck possession style of play also led to an almost identical home and away record: at home, the Kings went 23-14-3; on the road, they went 23-14-4. This season, the Kings have the number one ranked defense coming into the postseason and after the Gaborik trade on March 5th, the Kings offense looks much more balanced and improved as they jumped from 2.41 goals per game to 2.81 goals per game with Gaborik in the lineup. However, Gaborik will not be the only key player in this year’s playoffs.

Along with Gaborik, Anze Kopitar and Captain Dustin Brown have a lot to prove after last year’s abysmal showing in the playoffs. Kopitar and Brown essentially did not even show up for the 2013 playoffs. Brown suffered a knee injury in the end of the second round which helped keep his production low, but prior to that injury he still only scored four points in 12 games. Kopitar averaged 0.63 points per game (PPG) and Brown averaged 0.89 PPG during the 2012-13 regular season, compare that to Kopitar’s 0.22 PPG and Brown’s 0.50 PPG in the 2013 playoffs and you have a recipe for disaster. However, Kopitar as of lately is catching fire recording at least a point in six of the past eight games and is just two points shy of hitting the 70-point milestone. Brown is not going to be a player that will put up some crazy big numbers this season nor in the playoffs, but playing on the bottom six of the lines next to Jarrett Stoll, Brown’s line can be spectacularly successful this postseason facing the third and fourth lines of their opponents. Of course, in every playoff season, a team needs a strong performance out of their goaltender if they want to win a Stanley Cup… in walks Jonathan Quick. Quick has already proven to be a beast in the playoffs, under the big lights and in big-time situations. So as the number one defensive team in the league will lean on Quick to step-up in big-time situations, so goes the Los Angeles Kings’ hopes of another Stanley Cup Championship.

Every team that has made a playoff run has had big moves during the regular season that the team could point to and say, “that is why we got here.” This year for the Kings is no different. GM Dean Lombardi of the L.A. Kings made a big splash in 2012 by acquiring Jeff Carter at the trade deadline and it paid off big time. Fans are hoping the Marion Gaborik deal just before this year’s trade deadline resembles the Carter deal from this very same Columbus team, a deal that inevitably boosted L.A. to their first Stanley Cup. The 32-year-old Gaborik has suffered some setbacks in recent years due to injuries, but if the Kings can get the offensive production out of Gaborik that they know is still there, the Kings have a potential game-breaker every night he steps on the ice in a tie game. As previously mentioned, the move is already paying huge dividends as the Kings’ sporadic offense has become more consistent to go along with a now much improved power play unit. The Kings in the past two postseasons have ranked in the depths of power play production (12th of 16), but if the power play unit with Gaborik continues to click on all cylinders and they improve those dismal playoff PP numbers, the Kings could be nearly unstoppable with how well they play at even strength.

The Kings will face their in-state and divisional rival San Jose Sharks in the first round of this year’s playoffs. Last year’s Conference Semi-Finals saw the Kings and Sharks duke it out over seven games that eventually saw the Kings triumphantly moving on. This season, the Kings are 3-2 against the Sharks as the fireworks between the two teams continued. Four of the five games in this season series were decided by one goal, including a Kings win in overtime and a Sharks win in a shootout. This “games decided by one-goal” mantra stemmed from last year’s playoff series that saw five of the seven games decided by one goal. Also, each game in that series was won at home… but this year, the Sharks have the home-ice advantage.

The Sharks feel that this is their year to win the Cup having Vezina Trophy candidate and Stanley Cup champion Antti Niemi (38-17-7, 2.40 GAA, .912 SV%, 4 S/O) playing at his highest level and putting up some of the best numbers of his career to go along with some of the most talented top line scorers the game has ever seen. With 6’5” Brent Burns moving from Defense to Right Wing, the Sharks are more physical than they have ever been in years past… a trait they will most definitely need to possess against the Kings. The Los Angeles Kings are a strong, rugged, defensive team that can wear down any opponent they face in a seven game series and they have done it year-after-year under Sutter, winning the most playoff series of any team in the past two years. With the addition of Gaborik and the Sharks move sending Burns to the front line, this series should be filled with big hits, big shots and close games. It is hard to pick anyone but the Los Angeles Kings in this series as they have proven themselves time and time again while the Sharks struggle to find answers to their postseason woes. This game should go to seven games, but look for another spotlight performance out of one of the best big-game performers in the world, Jonathan Quick, as they move past the Sharks to give fans a long-awaited cross-town playoff series against the Ducks.

Kings win series 4-3

Conn Smythe prediction:
If the Kings raise the Cup this year for their second time in three years it will be on the back of the 2012 Conn Smythe winner, Jonathan Quick. Quick has an astounding career .940 save percentage in the playoffs and given the road the Los Angeles Kings will have to take in order to get to the Finals, Quick would have to put up some huge games in some huge situations that will most likely be taking place on the road as they will be potentially facing the higher seed in every round.

Commentary by Ryne Vyles

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