The Eastern Conference may be providing the drama in the 2012 NHL playoffs, with multiple games going into overtime, but it's the late-night, West Coast series that is showing who the new Stanley Cup favorite should be.
Not only have the Kings beaten two of the best teams in the league seven out of eight games -- they've done it convincingly. After dispatching the Vancouver Canucks in five games, the Kings have opened a nearly insurmountable 3-0 series lead over the St. Louis Blues by beating them at their own game.
The Kings forecheck matches the Blues in intensity. But the Kings' blueline puck-handlers are able to diffuse the Blues forecheck with quick, crisp outlet passes and diligent forwards who come back before building a dangerous transition. Even in the rare moments in Thursday's Game 3 when the Blues were clicking, it was muted by a confident, quickly-responsive Kings breakout.
There were perhaps just 40 seconds Thursday night where the Kings did not appear to have control of the game, and it was the 40 seconds between Chris Stewart's goal that tied it at 1-1 and Dwight King's deflating breakaway that took the lead right back for the Kings.
True, Brian Elliott's performance in goal for the Blues left much to be desired, with a scrub beating him here, and a straight-on shot squeaking through his legs there. And Jonathan Quick, though rarely tested, was scrambling a little more than he has been throughout most of the playoffs. But even despite some ugly goals allowed by Elliott, the Kings never looked threatened in what was a must-win game for the Blues, who only finished the season with 109 points.
Put another way, the injured Jaroslav Halak would not have changed the outcome of this game. Each Kings goal felt inevitable, with even fluke goals preceded by legit scoring chances.
There are a lot of flawed teams left in the playoffs, but Darryl Sutter's Kings are not one of them. Completely on top of their game from the goal line to center ice (where the Blues have no match for Anze Kopitar's line), they're on the verge of knocking off two of the top three regular season teams in short order.
Assuming they finish the formality of eliminating the Blues, the Kings' path to the Stanley Cup only gets easier from here.