In last year's playoffs, the Canucks drew one of the toughest first round opponents they could have asked for in the Chicago Blackhawks and barely made it out of that series alive. Unfortunately, the same thing happened to them this season as they will be taking on the Los Angeles Kings in what should be one of the most anticipated matchups of the first round.
Now, the Kings have had a lot of trouble scoring this season but they have been playing some terrific hockey all year and it's really picked up since the trade deadline. They might actually be one of the most dangerous teams this postseason and I think Vancouver is about to find out the hard way. Is history going to repeat itself or will the Canucks make this an easy series? We'll talk about that after the jump.
One of the main reasons why this series is going to be fun to watch is because we've got two teams that thrive on puck-possession and the Kings have actually been one of the best team's in the league in that category.
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|Team||PP Sh%||PK Sv%||PP SF/60||PK SA/60|
A team that controls play at even strength and receives elite goaltending should be a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs. So why are the Kings in 8th place instead of in the top 4? It's because haven't been able to score goals. At all. There was a good part of the season when their goaltender Jonathan Quick had to steal just about all of their games and he is the main reason why they are in the playoffs right now. Granted, you could pin some of their scoring woes on bad luck as it looks like they are playing against Henrik Lundqvist every night going by their shooting percentage, but the problem has to be much deeper than that.
Yes, luck has been part of the issue but a team that manages to outshoot their opponents every night but shoot at 6.4% has more problems than luck. That being said, they are due for some regression and they have been scoring more as of late, so I think they can be dangerous if they get hot in the playoffs. Vancouver isn't as good as they were last year at controlling the play but they haven't had much issues with scoring and have two reliable goalies who they can count on. It'll be interesting to see if they rotate goalies in the playoffs.
Vancouver's main adavantage in this series is on the powerplay. They have been one of the best teams in the league at getting shots on net and rank 4th in the NHL in PP percentage. Los Angeles doesn't have a particularly good penalty kill but their success rate is pretty high because of how good Quick has played shorthanded. The Canucks have a similar issue with their penalty kill because they give up a lot of shots but Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo (mostly the former) have been able to make the key saves when the Canucks are playing with the man down.
Most people know about the way Allain Vingeault deploys his forwards. The Sedins and Burrows get all the offensive zone starts while Manny Malhotra and his line are used primarily in the defensive zone. A lot of teams have a method like this but Vingeault has really taken it to the extremes this year as Malhotra has started less than 20% of his draws in the offensive zone. It's tough to figure out just to figure out how good or bad he's been territorially this year, but the fact that the Canucks traded for Sami Pahlsson, a player who essentially does the same thing, tells you how they feel about Malhotra's play.
Pahlsson is a very good shutdown center and makes the Canucks a lot deeper than they were before, and he's also better at driving the play forward than Malhotra so I think that trade should pay off for Vancouver. He could also take some burden off Ryan Kesler and force him into a more offensive role, which would definitely help the Canucks in this series since his line with Booth and Higgins have been great at getting the puck into the opponent's end.
It is also possible that David Booth could play on the top line if Daniel Sedin isn't ready to come back from his concussion and he honestly isn't a bad replacement. No, he isn't the point-getter that Sedin is but he should be able to be effective in that role, especially if he gets the normal Sedin treatment by starting almost 80% of his draws in the offensive zone.
The Canucks have a very good top six with solid scoring potential who become even more dangerous with the way that Vingeault deploys them. Pahlsson also gives them someone who can play against one of Kopitar or Richards' line to free up Kesler to some easier minutes and make him more of a scoring threat. I'm not completely sure if he will do that, though.
With the Kings being such a good team at driving the play into the offensive zone, there isn't a huge difference in how the forwards are used territorially. Darryl Sutter seems to be taking the "power vs. power" approach by matching Kopitar & Richards lines against the toughs and it seems to be working for Kopitar but not for Richards. He's definitely had a down year, but things have picked up ever since they traded for Jeff Carter. In fact, just about everyone on the Kings has seemed to play a lot better ever since Jack Johnson was shipped out in favor of Carter and it's not a coincidence.
Regardless of their underlying numbers, I think the Richards/Carter combo can work out well for the Kings in this series and make them a tough out. That combined with the great play of the Brown-Kopitar-Williams line gives the Kings two dangerous lines that can give the Canucks fits. A lot of people forget that these two could easily be first liners on some teams in the league, so they are going to be dangerous no matter what.
Personally, I think that Sutter should start utilizing his lines a little better territorially. Richards is a tough-minute center, but I think Kopitar can benefit from having Richards take more of the tough minutes & starting in the defensive zone more. That frees up easier ice-time for LA's top line can make them more effective. In a perfect world, that's what I would do but the Kings don't have that luxury
It would be easier to employ a method like that if they had another shutdown center. Jarrett Stoll is not a bad player but I don't know if he's capable of playing against top lines, especially the Sedins. Kyle Clifford, Jordan Nolan, Colin Fraser and Trent Hunter have also been protected a lot at even strength, so I don't think anyone of them can play the shutdown role to free up easier ice-time for LA's top-six. Richards seems to be the only one who can do that, but the Kings need him and Carter for goal-scoring now.
Even with that hole, the Kings forwards have been getting the job done over the last month or so and I think they will be fine this series.
Dan Hamhuis and Kevin Bieksa are going to need to be rock solid against Kopitar's line this series because the Canucks lack defensemen who can play tough minutes. Chris Tanev has been impressive during his call-up stint but it's mostly Hamhuis and Bieksa carrying the load on defense for them. That brings up an interesting question, with Hamhuis & Bieksa playing against Kopitar's line, who plays against Mike Richards?
The most likely candidates are Alex Edler and Sami Salo (until he inevitably gets injured) and neither have been terribly impressive this year. Edler is a good offensive defenseman but he gives a lot back in his own end and is barely keeping his head above water even with a lot of offensive zone starts. I think Edler will be a difference maker for the Canucks on the powerplay, but he could end up helping the Kings at even strength if he's playing against Richards and Carter.
Whoever plays on the third pairing is going to be protected and I think Rome and Gragnani will probably play over Andrew Alberts. Gragnani can at least help the Canucks on the powerplay and play well with sheltered minutes while Rome kills penalties. Alberts can also kill penalties but you can see that he's easily the worst defenseman the Canucks have on their roster right now so he will probably be up in the press box.
Scuderi and Doughty are going to have their work cut out for them this series against the Sedin line. Doughty isn't the dominant defenseman that he was a couple years ago, but he's still getting the job done at keeping the play in the opponent's zone while playing against other team's top lines. Scuderi has been slightly worse but he's also been used in the defensive zone more. I would expect these two to be used heavily against the Sedins.
One could argue that Willie Mitchell is a better fit to play against the Secins because he has experience as a shutdown defenseman and probably knows them well from his years of playing with Vancouver. I do like that idea, and I think the Kings might actually look into pairing Mitchell & Scuderi together. Althoug, Mitchell and Slava Voynov have been effective together so the Kings might be better of with not tinkering with something that isn't broke. Mitchell's sound defensive game helps cover up some of Voynov's rookie mistakes, but Mitchell might be better off playing against tougher competition instead of the more sheltered minutes that Voynov plays. As for a third pairing, Martinez and Greene are doing fine with easier minutes and I expect Martinez to get some powerplay time too.
Speaking of which, the only area where Johnson might be missed is on the powerplay but the Kings do have some skilled puck-movers in Doughty, Voynov and Martinez that could cover up for the loss of Johnson. Even if that's the case, I still think that this is a big weak point for the Kings in the series.
I have been hinting an upset for the entire article and here is where I finally put up or shut up on it. I am taking the Kings to win this series in 7 games for a few reasons. The first being that I don't think Vancouver is as great of a team as they were last season and their defense corps is extremely vulnerable outside the top-pairing. LA has a good second line which can expose that weakness. I also favor the Kings' possession play a lot more than I do the Canucks and their shooting percentage can't stay at under 7% forever. I've also seen a lot of the Kings games since the deadline and they've looked scary good in most of them. Kind of like the team most people predicted they would be before the season started. The Canucks were faced with a similar matchup with Chicago last season and they were one failed clear by Chris Campoli away from possibly not advancing. I don't think they get over that hump this year.