The Los Angeles Kings mowed through the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the Western Conference in short order. They now have an excellent opportunity to knock off No. 3 on their way to the Stanley Cup Final.
Difference is, the third seed is a division rival, one that finished just two points and two wins ahead of the Kings during the regular season. While the Kings fell short of high expectations by squeaking into the eighth seed for this year's playoffs, the Phoenix Coyotes well exceeded expectations in capturing their first division title.
Again, the regular-season margin between the NHL's overachievers and Philip Anschutz's underachievers: just two points.
The Kings were the second-lowest scoring team in the NHL this season, but there's a catch that will be a recurring theme here: Their finishing was at such a low rate that screams poor luck, and things really started to turn around after the hiring of Darryl Sutter as coach and the trade of Jack Johnson for Jeff Carter.
Now suddenly in the playoffs, they're the highest-scoring team still alive. They have received offense from their star Anze Kopitar, their captain Dustin Brown ... and their penalty kill, popping in four shorthanded goals in just nine playoff games.
The Coyotes are not as deep as the Kings at forward. But they're having one hell of a run during the playoffs, outscoring opponents at 5-on-5 and seeing two-way trade deadline acquisition Antoine Vermette lead a balanced unit in scoring with five goals and four assists. Ageless wonder Ray Whitney and captain Shane Doan are their most known threats, but young Mikkel Boedker and Martin Hanzal join Vermette in bringing a lot to the table in all three zones.
What were we saying about the Jack Johnson trade? It made the Kings better on offense and defense. Johnson had a famously theatrical tenure in Los Angeles, with his own GM and several observers noticing that, despite the offense he put up, he was a wandering mess in his own zone. With Johnson gone, the Kings have an excellent slate of six actual defensemen.
The Coyotes feature their own prodigy in 20-year-old Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who not only plays top minutes but also makes older partner Michal Rozsival look tolerable. Add Yandle, who makes the most of ample offensive opportunities, and veterans Rostislav Klesla, Derek Morris and Adrian Aucoin, and the Coyotes have a solid group ... but one that mostly does not match its Kings counterparts.
Jonathan Quick has stopped 95 percent of the shots he's faced in the playoffs (.949 save percentage). Mike Smith has stopped 95 percent of his own (.948). Quick has the pedigree, sharpening his game year after year, while Smith was so out of sorts he was waived last year.
But both have had tremendous seasons followed by tremendous playoffs. Smith is big and positionally sound, while Quick is an acrobatic and energetic puck magnet. Smith in particular has been spectacular, as his team has been outshot by 10 shots per game during these playoffs.
For one of them, the hot run will end, and it may be the difference in a short series.
Both Coyotes coach Dave Tippett and Kings coach Darryl Sutter are voodoo masters, but while Sutter took over an already-good team that merely needed tweaking, Tippett has made a habit of turning mince meat into annually competitive teams.
Sutter has more tools to play with, and his team was already a strong possession team when he took over. Tippett's Coyotes are decidedly not a dominant possession team, yet they routinely go further than anyone expects. If there is more magic to be had by the NHL's team this playoff year, it will be thanks to Smith's goaltending and Tippett's tricks.
In truth, despite the home advantage afforded the division-winning Coyotes, the favorite by all rights should still be Los Angeles. Kings blog Jewels from the Crown has a nice rundown of how these teams' lines are likely to match up, as well as an illustration of what we mean when we say the Kings have superior possession skills.
But funny things happen in four to seven game samples. It's been a wild playoff year already, and few would be surprised by another upset here -- even if it's the higher seed doing the upsetting.