Originally posted on Fox Sports West  |  Last updated 5/10/12
A once-sleepy regional rivalry between two western cities is ready to be ignited and re-written as longtime divisional foes Los Angeles and Phoenix finally face each other in the franchises' first head-to-head playoff series. Though nothing has been secured by any means, the New York Rangers could very well meet up with their Holland Tunnel rivals in New Jersey for the fourth time since Seinfeld turned "We're the Devils! The Devils!" into a cultural moment in 1995. Up to this point, no such distaste has been so acutely developed through a playoff grind between two desert cities linked by 350 miles of Interstate 10. Even in basketball, where the Lakers and Suns have met each other 12 times in the postseason, no revered sustaining rivalry has emerged between the two teams that traditionally represent the upper echelon of the Pacific Division and met as recently as 2010 in the Western Conference Finals. For the Lakers and their fans, there will always be the Celtics, and then the Spurs, and looking back at the pinnacle of the Western Conference's parity, the Trailblazers, Jazz and Supersonics and probably the Suns as well. Just because "Beat L.A." is chanted voraciously at America West Arena doesn't mean a profound rivalry exists. Are there really any Angelenos who harbor the slightest spite towards Kirk Gibson and the Diamondbacks? Was there anything substantial stirred up in the seven all-time NFL games contested between LA and Phoenix? Not really, and that's part of what makes this third round playoff series so much fun. Because the Kings and Coyotes' postseason accomplishments have been so limited, this series will take up an awful lot of print in the two teams' history books and leave a lasting impression on their fans' psyches. It will also continue raising the pillars of a nascent hockey rivalry, one that came into focus on February 16 when captains Dustin Brown and Shane Doan fought, as did centers Mike Richards and Martin Hanzal, Colin Fraser and Raffi Torres, and even a scrum involving Anze Kopitar and goaltender Mike Smith all in the first period. Phoenix escaped Staples Center with a win that night, one of two 1-0 games the defensively attuned teams played against each other. "I thought our games we played with them in the regular season were playoff-type games," Keith Yandle said Wednesday. Statistically and observationally, these are probably the two most clicking, bought-in teams in hockey right now along with the New Jersey Devils. Obviously any team that reaches the conference finals has to be operating at an extraordinarily high level, but the Coyotes' 13-3 record since March 29 a 16 game stretch in which they limited their opponent to one goal or less eight times is nearly as remarkable as the eighth-seeded Kings' 8-1 playoff record against the top two seeds in the Western Conference and their seven consecutive road playoff wins, dating back to last year. Just don't call them a Cinderella team. The two teams used different paths to get to this point, though they've both relied on heavy tenets of Sutter's Law goaltending, special teams, unsung heroes, top players and discipline. Sutter even dropped a reference to "bad breaks" on Wednesday. Both teams were top-five defensive teams in the regular season, though it's the way they've applied offense that has allowed for their playoff transformation. While the Dustin Brown Anze Kopitar Justin Williams line has combined for 29 points and a plus-21 rating through nine games, it has been Los Angeles' unsung contributions from every skater in the lineup that have provided that bump necessary to win eight of nine playoff games against two teams that battled for the President's Trophy. Clutch goals by Jarret Stoll, Brad Richardson and Trevor Lewis lifted the Kings over the Canucks and were followed by important goals in the second round by Matt Greene, Dwight King and Jordan Nolan. Of the 18 skaters who have appeared in at least six playoff games, 15 have scored. "I think if you look at lines three and four, everybody's outscoring their opposition," Justin Williams said. "Our third line has scored more than their third line. Our fourth line has scored more than their fourth line that we've played so far. We're going to need solid contributions from everybody." "That's what 'playoffs' is." Becoming more apparent in Los Angeles' late-season efforts, the Kings have moved the puck up the ice with an explosive urgency under Sutter, limiting their defensive zone time and occasionally catching their opponents in transition. "You don't want to play in your zone, and the quicker we can get out of there, the quicker we can get to our game," Williams said. It's puck possession efficiency that has also become a staple of the Coyotes' play under Dave Tippett, another coach who has pushed his team to successfully advance the puck quickly this postseason. "Phoenix is a really good neutral zone team," Sutter said. "It's one of the strengths of how Dave coaches, and that's one of the strengths of the game." Phoenix's deep blueline often pairs a fleet puck mover with a versatile, defensive type during even strength play. Keith Yandle continues to excel in the up-tempo playoff cadence and has been a large reason the Coyotes were able to improve their power play from a 29th-ranked 13.6 success rate in the league during the regular season to a more-acceptable 16.1 clip that places them in the middle of the pack amongst playoff teams. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, two months shy of his 21st birthday, ranks third amongst active playoff participants with an average 26:04 of ice time per game and is often anchored by stay-at-home D-man Michal Rozsival, while Rostislav Klesla, tied for second on the team in postseason scoring with Yandle and Mikkel Boedker, will often skate with veteran Adrian Aucoin. "I think all of our guys have offensive ability. Everybody is pretty good with the puck, plays the puck well, makes good passes. And that's the key, especially in this game, is to try to make one pass and get out of the zone quick or as quick as you can. And I think we've got guys who are great defensively as well, too, but I think we've got a lot of good puck-moving guys." Rozsival recently returned from injury and Adrian Aucoin's availability for Game 1 is unclear after he left Game 5 of the Nashville series with an undisclosed injury. David Schlemko slotted in ably in Rozsival's absence and Klesla's Game 5 suspension against the Predators. One of the major factors for success in this series hinges on one team's ability to successfully implement their own aggressive forecheck to disrupt the other team's skilled puckmovers. The Kings defensively are inclined to pair a younger puck-mover with a more veteran stay-at-home type. Each of the veterans has previously appeared in a conference final Willie Mitchell with Minnesota in 2003, Matt Greene, a Stanley Cup participant with Edmonton in 2006, and Rob Scuderi, a Stanley Cup winner with Pittsburgh in 2009. Greene and Scuderi are among eight Kings who have appeared in the Stanley Cup Finals, along with Cup winners Dustin Penner, Justin Williams and Colin Fraser and runners up Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Jarret Stoll. "As a collective mentality, it kind of bleeds onto the rest of the guys because we've been there before," Penner said of the players with Cup experience. "We've seen the puppeteer and the strings. We know what to expect." Up front, the Coyotes have excelled despite a drop in production from what was their best line during most of the regular season. Though Martin Hanzal suffered a lower body injury in the Chicago series and only recently regained his comfort level in round two, the 6'6 first line two-way center with surprisingly active hands acts as the gears that get the most out of skilled wingers Ray Whitney and Radim Vrbata. Vrbata has one even strength goal thus far and if that isn't surpassed several times over in this series, Phoenix may be in trouble. His five goals and seven points against Los Angeles were the most against any team and part of a career-high 35 goal campaign. One of the series' more scrutinized matchups will be between captains Doan and Brown, both of whom have endured grating years of regular and postseason hardship to be able to stand on the precipice of a Cup berth. Both players have been enormously important to their teams' efforts thus far, though with 11 points and a plus-nine rating in nine games, Brown may be the most effective forward on any team in the 2012 playoffs. "He's probably been the best forward, the best player," Doan said. "You look at Quick, and you look at Smitty, the goaltenders, they always rule the playoffs. But outside, as a player, he's probably been the best player in the playoffs. It's been fun to watch, it's going to be really fun to compete against him, for sure. I mean, you look forward to that." Doan will likely see time with Mikkel Boedker and Antoine Vermette, the latter of whom leads the team in postseason scoring with five goals and nine points. Another premier matchup clearly resides in net, where Mike Smith and Jonathan Quick have been the motors to their teams' playoff campaigns. Smith's save percentage is .948 in the playoffs; Quick's is .949. Both have demonstrated that they are completely capable of winning games practically by themselves Quick's 41-save Game 3 shutout of Vancouver was one of the postseason's top goaltending performances, while Smith led Phoenix to a six-game series win over Chicago despite facing an average of over 40 shots per game. The Kings have already shown that they can get through a playoff series when facing top-notch goaltending. Despite only one goal in regulation each night, Los Angeles went 2-1 against Vancouver in the three games started by Cory Schneider and also emerged with a pair of wins while going up against a strong Roberto Luongo. Both teams feature stingy penalty kills, with the Kings shutting St. Louis out through 17 attempts and the Coyotes clamping down on Nashville's power play in its final 12 attempts after it had led the league in power play efficiency during the regular season. With dynamic chemistry between forwards Kopitar and Brown and renowned shorthanded specialist Mike Richards, Los Angeles has outscored its opponents 4-3 while shorthanded this postseason, though their power play is in a 1-for-35 rut. Amongst the intangibles are both teams' barren playoff records and a pair of respected coaches clearly pushing the right buttons with their players. There's really nothing too fancy with either team these are two quick, north-south type squads capable of throwing their weight around physically and pressuring their opponents into turning the puck over and making mistakes. The team more effectively able to forecheck and impose a strain on the puck-carriers leaving their zone will find success in this series Trevor Lewis' ability in pressuring Dan Hamhuis to turn the puck over to Jarret Stoll in overtime in the first round and Dustin Brown's stripping of Carlo Coliacovo to feed a dangling Anze Kopitar while shorthanded in round two are strong examples of what the Kings will be looking to reproduce. "Stick to what works, right? We don't want to come in here and X and O's ourselves to death and change too much," Colin Fraser said. "You make your adjustments to what they're trying to do, but we're not talking major changes. We've been successful to this point, and we've got to continue to do what works for us, and that's playing hard, heavy forechecking, and obviously being good defensively." Both teams have been allowed a playoff respite and an opportunity to hit that oft-quoted 'reset button' as the Rangers-Capitals series unfolds, and while they've rightfully received significant attention from both local and national hockey media, don't expect either team to lose sight of its focus. "We're really just trying to focus on the smaller goals, like getting ready for the first period, first shift for the next game in Phoenix," Dustin Penner said. Stories such as Detroit's home record, St. Louis' resurgence and Nashville's bulking up at the trade deadline influenced representations of the Central Division's top-heavy dominance this year, but come May, there are two fully bought in Pacific Division teams that will fight for the opportunity to play for the Stanley Cup. "You never know, but you always talk about how you get into the playoffs and almost anything can happen, and two weeks before the playoffs I'm sure that not too many people were picking this," Doan said. "But it doesn't matter, we're both here and we're excited." Prediction: Kings in 7
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