The 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs are upon us, and by the end of it you'll feel like The Walking Dead. Hence, zombie motif!
Vancouver vs Los Angeles
It's a shame this rematch of the 2010 Western Conference Quarterfinals has to take place without Shane O'Brien and Wayne Simmonds. Those two made things interesting the last time around. Who will provide the double gun action this time?
Los Angeles has had an underwhelming year. Projected by many to take on elite status in the West, they've failed to play to their potential all season, hovering around the middle of the pack and needing 81 games to clinch a spot. They may be an eighth seed, but if they can put it all together in the second season, they'll hardly look like one, especially versus a team they match up well against.
Coming off a second-consecutive Presidents' Trophy win, the Canucks are the heavy favourites here. But this series has upset written all over it. Under Darryl Sutter, LA plays a style not dissimilar from what the Boston Bruins utilized to knock off the Canucks in last year's Stanley Cup Final: Tough, bruising, agitating hockey, a lockdown defence, Vezina-calibre goaltending, and a healthy dose of clutch n' grab.
The Canucks have made upgrades specifically to deal with a weakness to this style of play, loading up on defencemen and defensive centres for fear of getting into a tight, low-scoring, see-who-breaks-first series. They get to test their mettle right away. Will the changes pay off?
Here is your Canucks vs. Kings preview, complete with Zombified observations …
Vancouver Canucks (1) vs. Los Angeles Kings (8)
April 11: Los Angeles at Vancouver, 10:30 p.m.
April 13: Los Angeles at Vancouver, 7 p.m.
April 15: Vancouver at Los Angeles, 10 p.m.
April 18: Vancouver at Los Angeles, 10 p.m.
April 22: Los Angeles at Vancouver, TBA*
April 24: Vancouver at Los Angeles, TBA*
April 26: Los Angeles at Vancouver, TBA*
Much of the Canucks' potency up front will depend on the health of Daniel Sedin, who skated with the team Monday but remains questionable for Game 1 with a concussion. If he's in the lineup, the Canucks' first line contains two Art Ross winners, which is ideal. Without him, Henrik Sedin still gets his points, but the first line's identity as a puck-retaining, cycle monster is gone, as is the conundrum of how to defend two Sedins.
The rest of the Canucks' forward corps(e) (zombies!) is spearheaded by Ryan Kesler, David Booth, and Chris Higgins. When the three play together, they generate shots on goal aplenty. Spread over two lines, as Alain Vigneault seems to prefer, they spearhead a middle six of relentless forecheckers who work to create turnovers and beat teams in transition.
The Kings have some excellent forwards as well -- Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Justin Williams -- but they don't score with nearly the same potency as Vancouver. LA's 2.26 goals per game average was 29th in the league. Anze Kopitar is their offensive standout, scoring a team-high 76 points in 2011-12. Unless Jeff Carter is on his game, they lack any true snipers, scoring most of their goals in the dirty areas and on rebounds.
But that's where Los Angeles can make their mark on this series: physicality and grit. Their group up front is much more equipped for that sort of game than Vancouver. Each of their four lines is built to punish, from Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar on the first line to Dustin Penner and Jarrett Stoll on the third. If they can turn the games into grind-it-out affairs, they could seize the advantage.
The Kings are going to dump the puck in and attempt to punish Canuck defenders, create turnovers, and go to the net. The Canucks will attempt to limit this by possessing the puck for long stretches and break down the Kings' defence with their cycle game.
The Canucks' top four consists of shutdown pair Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhius, and the more offensive-minded duo of Alex Edler and Sami Salo. Both pairings can create offence. While the forwards took a step back this year in terms of their production, this defense put up 181 points, the most it ever has in the Mike Gillis era.
Expect Sami Salo to be attacked relentlessly by the Kings. He's famously fragile and not as quick to turn as he once was. If he can't go, rookie Chris Tanev likely draws into the top four, and the Kings would no doubt prefer an exploitable rookie over a playoff veteran.
The Canucks, similarly, will be doing chop-licking aplenty at Slava Voynov, who has quietly put together a strong rookie campaign with the Kings. He'll play on the second pairing with Willie Mitchell, which should see a healthy dose of the Sedins.
But the Kings' bread and butter is their pairing of Drew Doughty and Rob Scuderi. Doughty has taken a step back this year but he can still be an elite defenceman in this league and he picked the Canucks apart two years ago. If he isn't, however, the Canucks have a major edge. Their group simply has more impact.
Keep an eye on both Voynov and Tanev. Both are smooth but utterly hittable D-men. I predict each gets rocked about once a game.
When the Zombie Apocalypse happens, the Canuck most likely to survive is Alex Burrows because he will literally do whatever it takes to survive. The guy is dirty. Plus, Patrice Bergeron will tell you that he's already got a killer zombie impression lined up to help him fake his way through a horde.
When the Zombie Apocalypse happens, the King most likely to survive is Willie Mitchell. That guy is a freaking warrior. He'll have zombies on leashes by week 2. (Least likely to survive: Dustin Penner, who's the nice guy you wound and leave behind for the zombies to devour while you make your getaway.)
The Canucks employ a goaltender named Roberto Luongo. You might have heard of him. He's an excellent netminder, maybe one of the league's best, but he could use Magneto's helmet -- it's very possible to get into his head. On the bright side, Cory Schneider has been excellent all season. If Luongo struggles, the Canucks won't hesitate to send out the backup, whose numbers are better and whose flakiness is far less storied. Vancouver's goaltending situation should be harder to crack this year.
The Kings, meanwhile, just have a Vezina candidate in goal, no big deal. Jonathan Quick was second this season in GAA with a 1.95, 5th in SV% (.929), and 1st in shutouts with 10. He's been getting it done all year when his team hasn't, and there's no reason to suspect that won't continue.
The Canucks are the horde of zombies outside the house near the end of the movie. No matter how well you fortify, they're going to get in eventually. Do you have enough ammunition to take them all down?
The Kings are Big Daddy, the undead gas station attendant from Land of the Dead. Massive, smart, and capable of putting it all together at any moment. So help you if this team learns how to cross the river and operate weaponry (i.e. score).
Alain Vigneault is a former Jack Adams Award winner and three-time nominee that trusts and knows the players in his room completely. He's coming off a Stanley Cup Final appearance and he knows his team inside and out after years behind the bench. He can be a little slow to adjust.
Speaking of adjusting, Darryl Sutter's been to a Stanley Cup Final as well, but that was before the lockout. And his post-lockout playoff experience is limited to one first-round exit in 2006. Can he coach his players to the next level in the new NHL?
The Canucks' power play scored 57 goals on 288 opportunities. That 19.8 success rate was 4th in the league. Their 6th-ranked penalty kill was successful 86.0% of the time, allowing 40 goals on 286 opportunities.
The Kings had the slightly better penalty kill, allowing 38 goals on 293 opportunities, good for 4th in the NHL at 87.0%. Their powerplay was sub-par, however, scoring 49 times on 289 powerplay opportunities, 17th in the NHL at 17.0%.
In order to defeat the Canucks, you play them physical, get the team rattled, and frustrate the Sedins. The Canucks are in a no-win situation there. If they don't respond, you can keep pounding on the twins to frustrate them. If they do, they're frustrated.
In order to defeat the Kings, you play a whistle-to-whistle game. Avoid the rough stuff, play north-south, and force them to play from behind where they have to let down their defensive guard.
In short, the officiating will have a major impact on this series, and stuff will get missed. I'm setting the over/under on Hollywood conspiracy articles coming out of Vancouver at 2.5.
Canucks in 6. The Kings have some excellent pieces but they don't have the depth and, until they show otherwise, they don't have the scoring. This team has underachieved all season and now they go up against a team they would have had a hard team beating even if they were on top of their game. Expecting them to overachieve now seems unlikely.