Western Conference Quarterfinals
Los Angeles Kings 45-29-8 (98 points) vs. Vegas Golden Knights 51-24-7 (109 points)
The Vegas Golden Knights have had the most unexpected expansion season in NHL history, however for this Cinderella story to continue well into the playoff season, the Knights will have to face what most would consider their toughest opponent of the season, the Los Angeles Kings. The Knights can win this series, but it won’t be easy, here’s some things to consider;
With the high scoring Knights, Marc-Andre Fleury will not have to out perform Jonathon Quick, he just needs to keep pace, stay consistent and allow the forwards to do what they’ve done all season – score a lot goals. Quick has proven that he can steal games for his team, but he wont steal 4 out of 7 games. Both goaltenders have led their teams to Stanley Cup victories and with Fleury having the best statistical season of his career, there is no reason why he shouldn’t be considered the favorite in this match-up.
The Knights generally use a “defense by committee” system. Brayden McNabb and Nate Schmidt anchor the defense, rounded out by Engelland, Miller, Hunt, Merrill and Theodore who provide the Knights with speed and offense. Luca Sbisa is still out with a long term injury. The Kings rely heavily on Drew Doughty and Alec Martinez to carry the pace of the game and Doughty has proven that he can almost singlehandedly control the pace of a game from the back end, but he can’t defend against both top lines from Vegas. Jake Muzzin and Derek Forbert look questionable for at least the short term. Gerard Gallant will have the luxury of line matching early, which means that the Kings will likely have their second and third pairing defensemen exploited by either the Eric Haula line or the William Karlsson line. After the aforementioned defensemen, the Kings are pretty thin and inexperienced, with the exception of Phaneuf who although reasonably effective, is not the player he once was and won’t be able to contend with the Golden Knights speed.
The Knights top two lines boast five 20 goal scorers and David Perron with 50 assists (If Perron cant go, expect power forward Alex Tuch to fill his spot on the second line). On the power play, either of Vegas’ top 2 lines, who Gallant usually likes to keep together for the pp, can be as effective as the other while adding Alex Tuch or Ryan Carpenter. The third line carries as much speed as any third line in the league. The fourth line anchored by PE Bellemare and Tomas Nosek can shut down other teams offense as good as any shut down line in the league and are frequently used on the penalty kill. William Karlsson, who should be in the conversation for the Selke trophy is also used heavily on the PK and has accumulated 4 short handed goals in the regular season. The Kings will rely heavily on Jeff Carter, Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli. Kopitar is again a front runner for the Selke and in serious consideration for the Hart trophy and Carter, Brown and Toffoli have proven to have serious playoff chops. Like San Jose and Chicago, the Kings generally run their offense from the back end with Doughty and Martinez. Alex Iafollo will add forward depth if he is cleared to play before Wednesday. Gallant will have to line match and put pressure on Doughty and keep him contained. The Kings forwards with Brown and Clifford along with Doughty will try to drag the series into a gutter match, the Knights will have to stay away from this style of hockey as much as possible if they are to succeed. Ryan Reeves was drawn into some undisciplined penalties over back to back games immediately after joining the Knights and (if dressed) will have to play with more discipline.
Coaching: Gerard Gallant, unarguably this years Jack Adams front runner, has rolled 4 lines pretty much all season and there doesn’t seem to any reason to believe he’ll change his philosophy now. He also rolls the defensemen more evenly than most coaches. Conversely, John Stevens uses a much “shorter bench” and relies heavily on his core players for nearly all special team situations. This should bode well for Vegas in a long series.
Synopsis: If any team can make a Stanley Cup run from a bottom seed, the Kings core group have proven that it’s them, however with a thinner supporting cast and some key injuries this year, they will be ripe for the taking. The Golden Knights began the season playing loose “house money” hockey and found tremendous success, however as of late they’ve resorted to systematic hockey and have tightened up their game. The passing isn’t as loose as it was and the defense doesn’t play as high and aggressive as they did earlier in the season. Vegas has played with a depleted line-up for over a month and rested key players for the last 2 weeks, it’s tough to gauge whether this rest period will help the Knights or take a game or two to regain their chemistry. For the Knights to win this series, they will have to find a balance that utilizes speed, a heavy forecheck and an active defense while maintaining their defensive responsibilities.
Three Knights to watch:
Brayden McNabb: If the Kings have their way, this series will be rough. McNabb is the Knights heavy hitting defenseman and has something to prove to the Los Angeles brass.
Alex Tuch: A power forward in the making and a rough series with LA will bring that out.
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare: the Knights defensive specialist. Look for him to take a lot of defensive zone face-offs, and be prominent on the PK.
My Prediction: Vegas in 6 games
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