Despite all the odds stacked against them, the Vancouver Canucks finished the regular season as the President's Trophy winners for the second consecutive season. Shrugging aside the inconsistent play of Roberto Luongo, a late season concussion to Daniel Sedin and a hard push from the St. Louis Blues, they seem prepared to charge into the Western Conference playoffs in search of the Stanley Cup and finish the job they started last summer.
Unable to claim the Pacific Division crown, the Kings seemed all too likely to slip out of the playoff picture before the addition of Jeff Carter helped relieve some of their offensive woes. Still, they come into the Stanley Cup playoffs having scored just 188 goals in the regular season -- not only the lowest of all playoff clubs, but the second lowest overall in the NHL. Their defense is good, but can they keep walking the razor's edge?
The biggest question in this matchup is going to be, "Who gets healthy first?"
While Vancouver was able to win in the regular season without Daniel Sedin, he still remains the Canucks' leading goal-scorer, and the natural connection between Daniel and his brother Henrik cannot be undervalued. Finally rejoining the team on Monday, he appears ready to return to action, but will he be able to bring himself back to top performance quickly enough?
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the team continues to rise and fall on the backs of Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown, but the contributions from newcomer Mike Richards and the recently acquired Carter were essential in their late-season playoff push. Carter, who missed the final five games of the regular season with a severely bruised ankle, skated with the team on Monday and appeared ready to go, according to L.A. beat writer Helene Elliott, though head coach Darryl Sutter still considers Carter day to day.
As mentioned above, the Kings scored just 188 goals in the regular season, and more than 100 of them came from five players -- Kopitar, Brown, Richards, Carter and Justin Williams. With Drew Doughty the only other King in double-digits for goal-scoring, L.A. badly needs someone to step up and help challenge the Vancouver defense.
Allowing just 170 goals against in the regular season, the Kings were second only to St. Louis in the entire NHL ... but Vancouver was no slouch in that department either, giving up only 191 goals, fourth-best in the league.
The Kings gave up a major stalwart of their blue line when Jack Johnson was sent to Columbus in the Carter trade, but the rise of rookie Slava Voynov has helped replace the former NCAA star. Voynov has logged 18 to 20 minutes a night as he has stepped into the lineup, while the team continues to lean on Doughty, Willie Mitchell and Rob Scuderi for more than 20 minutes a night against some of the NHL's most dangerous stars.
The Canucks, meanwhile, continue to lean on the same top four who carried them into game seven of the Cup finals last season, with Sami Salo, Alexander Edler, Dan Hamhuis and Kevin Bieksa splitting the load both offensively and defensively.
Each team has a core that any other organization might envy, but the real difference is in their checking lines. While Los Angeles brings experienced veterans like Jarret Stoll and Ethan Moreau to the lineup, the Canucks not only bring players who have been their and done that, like Manny Malhotra or Jannik Hansen -- they have also added veteran experience in the form of deadline-day acquisition Samuel Pahlsson, whose abilities to shut down a game were a major factor in the Anaheim Ducks' 2007 Stanley Cup victory.
The Vancouver power play came just shy of 20 percent efficiency through the regular season, fourth overall at 19.8 percent. Hammering their way through penalty killers and able to attack from all angles, the team has an embarrassment of riches when laying out their playbook.
Though the Kings are not so far behind in efficiency at an even 17 percent, they remain much more of a "one-unit" team -- shut down the main thrust of their attack and you're much more likely to succeed at the kill.
If there is an advantage for the Kings PP, it is that their defensive mindset extends into this sphere, as well. The team allowed only two short-handed goals all season, while the Canucks were guilty of giving up four goals with the man advantage.
Los Angeles owns the better penalty kill by a slim margin (87 percent to Vancouver's 86 percent), but has been the more dangerous short-handed unit all season. Their nine short-handed markers are tied for fifth overall in the NHL with the Ottawa Senators.
Quick may just be the reason the Kings arrived in the postseason to begin with. With 35 wins in 69 starts, Quick lead the NHL with 10 shutouts, posting a 1.95 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage. Able to steal games left and right, Quick may well be facing one of the few goaltenders who could challenge him in terms of statistical excellence.
Despite being "the backup," Cory Schneider still saw action in 33 games, posting a 1.96 GAA and .937 SV%, and recording three shutouts of his own. Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault has been willing to supplant Luongo when the starting netminder has struggled under pressure. Though it seems the highly paid netminder is on an incredibly short leash, he still started 54 games this season and won 31, but his 2.41 GAA and .919 SV% are much closer to league average.
Speaking of league average, there is the other half of the equation for the Kings -- former AHL all star Jonathan Bernier, who has been able to post five wins in his 16 appearances, with a 2.36 GAA and .909 SV%. Not as exceptional as his partner, but solid enough to help hold down the fort should anything happen to Quick.
In the end, though, Quick is not only the best netminder in this series -- he may well be the best goaltender still playing. The question is, will he be enough of a difference maker to bring down the regular-season champs?
THE CANUCKS WILL WIN IF ... Daniel and Henrik can once again prove that two is better than one. If whomever the Canucks can put into the goal will stand up to their opponents. If the team can keep up the habits that carried them through the regular season. If their offensive abilities are enough to overcome the skill and tenacity of Quick. If the trades that added defensive talent and experience make up for the offensive punch of Cody Hodgson.
THE KINGS WILL WIN IF ... Carter can help his old teammate find the back of the Vancouver net. If Quick's Vezina-level season can carry his team regardless of its scoring. If the Kings can prove that if you don't have confidence in one goaltender, you don't have confidence in either. If the team can muster up secondary scoring. If their defense can shut down one of the best offensive units of the post-lockout era.