(Ed. Note: With its new playoff format, the NHL is seeking to create passion for fans and teams through forced, bracketed relationships. But hey, at first glance, the matchups are pretty sexy. All of this led to one ideal theme for our 2014 Playoff Preview: Tinder, the social media dating app. We hope you swipe right this postseason ...)
The Los Angeles Kings narrowly survived the Battle of California, making history by fighting their way back from a three-game deficit versus the San Jose Sharks to win their first round series in seven.
Their reward? Another battle of California, this time versus Anaheim Ducks, the best team in the state according to the standings, and the worst team according to score-adjusted Fenwick.
Forget Minnesota. California has become the true state of hockey, sending a team to the Western Conference finals in each of the past four years. This year will make it five. But who will it be?
The Ducks won the Pacific Division thanks in large part to the depth of their forward corps, and this was a major factor in their first-round win over the Dallas Stars, as they got goals from 11 different forwards.
Of course, they won both in larger part thanks to two forwards in particular -- Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. By now you probably know that both are pretty fantastic at this hockey thing, and both made that abundantly clear again in Round 1.
Perry and Getzlaf put up 3 goals and 7 points apiece. Priority number one is, as you'd expect, preventing a repeat performance.
If that happens, however, Anaheim's got other weapons. The two-way ability of Andrew Cogliano, Saku Koivu, and whomever (Jakob Silfverberg in practice on Thursday) remains a major weapon. Nick Bonino scored three goals in Round 1. Mathieu Perrault, Teemu Selanne, Daniel Winnik, Kyle Palmieri... Anaheim has been getting contributions from all over the place.
But the Kings have answers. Darryl Sutter's not much of a line-matcher, but one assumes he'll happily let Anaheim's top line go head-to-head with his, which features Anze Kopitar. Kopitar has emerged as one of the league's premier defensive forwards, and the fact that he's also leading the postseason in scoring should give you an indication of how good he is these days. Watching him and Getzlaf go head to head is going to be amazing.
Like the Ducks, the Kings are several lines deep, with Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Dustin Brown in depth roles, which remains pretty crazy, and guys like Trevor Lewis and the perennially underrated Justin Williams always ready to chip in. Youngsters Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson have arrived as well, making the Kings perhaps the NHL's truest four-line team.
In other words, this series has more lines than a million pair of Adidas, as Canibus once said. Don't make me choose.
Here is where the Kings' advantage starts to show. This is a team led by one of the best bliueliners in the world in Drew Doughty. He's a difference-maker in every game he plays, and he's one of the biggest differences in this series. No one in Anaheim's defense corps can hang with him.
Cam Fowler continues to come into his own, and his pairing with Ben Lovejoy pushes the puck with aplomb. But after that, things fall off, especially since Anaheim lost Stephane Robidas to a broken leg, forcing Luca Sbisa up to Francois Beauchemin's pairing.
The Kings, meanwhile, are ridiculously deep on the back-end even beyond Doughty. The only reason there's a drop-off from their first pairing to their other two is that he's so otherwordly good. After he and Muzzin, though, Slava Voynov, Robyn Regehr, Alec Martinez, and Matt Greene, in for the injured Willie Mitchell, are a fantastic top four, let alone a bottom four.
The Ducks played both Fredrick Anderson and Jonas Hiller in their final game of Round 1, which speaks to the questions they still have in goal. Fortunately, they outscored any problems they had in the crease.
That will likely be tougher to do against Jonathan Quick, who started the postseason slowly, then found his footing and closed out round 1 with people once again dubbing him the best goalie in the world. He was beaten just twice in the final three games of that series.
Consider: the San Jose Sharks were good enough to beat the Los Angeles Kings three times in a row, and the Kings beat them four times in a row. They are rolling right now.
Bruce Boudreau's into the second round for the third time in his career, and until he takes a team further, he'll be dogged by questions about whether or not he can do that.
Sutter, on the other hand, is a recent Cup winner, and a guy that never gets ruffled. Not once, not even when he was down 3-0 to San Jose, did he look concerned. He kept going back to the same guys over and over, confident they'd get the job done. He knows this team and this team knows him. Tough to bet against him.
These are both 5-on-5 teams. Neither is going to kill you with special teams play, really.
Both teams had bad powerplays in the regular season, and then put in decent performances with the man advantage in round one, converting on about one in every four opportunities, which is what you want.
Similarly, nobody's writing about their penalty kills. Anaheim and Los Angeles were decent in the regular season, at 11th and 13th in the league, respectively. But the Kings have now killed 15 straight penalties. Their kill is rolling.
SERIES SLOW JAM
"Cruisin'", by the legendary Smokey Robinson, because that's what the Kings are doing right now.
Players to watch.
SWIPE LEFT ON... Jonas Hiller/Frederik Andersen. The Ducks' goalies weren't really all that good in round one, but they didn't need to be, so nobody's talking about them. Juxtaposed with Jonathan Quick, however, they might look a bit overmatched.
SWIPE RIGHT ON... Justin Williams. Clutch is really more of a narrative concept than an actual trait, but Williams is that guy that makes you wonder if some people really have it. In five career Game 7s, Williams has 10 points. When the Kings need someone to step up, it's usually him.
The dirty secret: The Sharks didn't really choke. The Kings are just that good, and the Ducks are in over their heads here.
The Kings were the NHL's best team by Fenwick, that possession metric that tends to be a better predictor of postseason success than regular-season wins and losses. Consider: if you predicted round one based solely on Fenwick totals, you'd have gone 3-1 in the West. Based on the standings, you'd have gone 1-3.
Similarly, the Kings' ability to control possession is going to be the death of Anaheim. They'll keep the puck in the Ducks' end and pepper whoever's in goal with shot after shot. It's going to work and they're going to advance. The Ducks have some truly timely scorers and Getzlaf and Perry are good for a win, at least, but no more.
Kings in 5.