The Los Angeles Kings have won two of the last six Stanley Cups. The Vegas Golden Knights didn’t even exist this time last year. Now, they square off in round one of the NHL playoffs in a series that should be fun.
One of the most remarkable sports stories in recent memory is this inaugural season of the Golden Knights. Their 51-24-7 record was not only the league’s fifth best but they also became the first NHL expansion team to end the regular season over .500.
The original NHL expansion from six to twelve teams in 1967 enabled sub .500 teams to make the playoffs, including the Blues of St Louis who actually made it to the Cup finals in their first season (got swept by Montreal). In the post expansion era, however, this Knights squad has shattered all perceptions of what a first year team should look like. All season, like so many, I kept waiting for the magic to end for Vegas. They finished a modest 10-8-3 and 5-5 at home, but never once did this team ever look like an expansion team. Now with the stakes raised, will the team from the city of high stakes raise their game or fold?
Skating in their way in round one are the Los Angeles Kings. Absent from the playoffs the past two seasons, there are still 8 players remaining from two championship teams (2012 and 2014) and three more who were there in 2014. This is not an insignificant factor, because the names linked to this winning experience are some big time players. Led on the blue line by Drew Doughty, this team takes on a no-nonsense approach and at just 28, he is still more than capable of reminding people early and often how much more physical playoff hockey is. Playmaker, Anze Kopitar, coming off a fabulous 92 point season, shows no signs of slowing down at 30 and is as complete a player as there is in this series with defensive and face-off excellence to match his puck skills. Then, of course, there is net minder, Jonathan Quick. Injuries and the team’s recent slide may have slipped him under the radar a bit, but shame on the team who thinks he is so far removed from his post season greatness that he can’t do it again. He can.
The Knights are not exactly void of playoff experience, notably James Neal, David Perron and of course, Marc-Andre Fleury (more on him later), but as a team they have never faced the pressure, adversity and spotlight that the post season provides. Experience for the sake of experience is not necessarily an advantage. You can have a lot of bad post season games under your belt that won’t put the check mark on your side of the ledger, but when you had the kind of success that the Kings and so many of their core players have had, it’s hard not to give them a huge advantage in this series.
The experience carries over to the head coach as well. It’s hard not to miss Darryl Sutter, but John Stevens has been in the trenches with this group and has emerged victoriously as an assistant during LA’s Cup wins. Prior to that he coached the Philadelphia Fliers (2006-2010) to a 263-120-109 record and two playoff appearances (11-12).
His counterpart, Gerard Gallant, did an outstanding job with this first year team. Prior to the Vegas gig, he coached the Columbus Blue Jackets and Florida Panthers. His career records stands at 203-164-4, with a 2-4 career post season record.
It’s not a hard and fast rule that experience behind the bench wins in the playoffs, but for this matchup, I gotta give the edge to Stevens and the Kings.
Both goalies have a world of playoff experience, but while Quick has elevated his game and carried his team, Fleury’s post-season career has been spotty. He’s had some big moments, but has also thrown in some clunkers. Two of his three rings were won watching Matt Murray in goal for the Penguins. I’m not saying he is not capable, but in net, I give another check mark to the Kings.
Moving out from the net, Los Angeles again boasts a world of experience and some household names. Doughty with Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez are players who seem to be all over the ice in their end and are also capable of making the big offensive play. Veteran Dion Phaneuf brings size and toughness and a hunger to add a ring to his great career. When you add the defensive commitment of their forwards, led by Kopitar and Dustin Brown, the Knights would be hard pressed to match the defensive excellence of the Kings, who get another check mark here.
At forward, the Knights finally get a check mark. And it’s a big one. They have skill and play fast and relentlessly. They are the second highest scoring team in the Western playoffs behind Winnipeg. William Karlsson arrived on the hockey stage of an expansion team and a star was born. He is a great success story. Florida knew that had a good one in Jon Marchessault and exposing him to the draft launched what is shaping up to be a brilliant career. David Perron, Reilly Smith, Erik Haula and James Neal are all capable scorers, anytime, anyplace. The Kings don’t have that kind of fire power.
Other than Kopitar, neither team is good on face-offs. If one team starts to have a decided advantage in this category, it could tip the balance their way. A good thing to keep an eye on.
In all sports, the notion that a team can flip a switch and suddenly get better is a myth. Yet, somehow, with the LA Kings, I break from conventional wisdom and say they are almost that kind of team. When the puck drops, this team is going to be dangerous and a difficult out. I just get that feeling. They will be physical and will not beat themselves. West beware.
If Vegas is to win this series, they will have to do it with offense. They are capable and dynamic. The matchup with the Kings defense is a great one for an opening rounder and should be fun to watch. However, in the playoffs when everything tightens up, theirs is not an easy way to win 16 games.
Can they do it in this series? Sure. Is it likely? No. Kings in 6.