Top Shelf: Kings, Coyotes prove Pacific Division's strength
By Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - For the first time since the NHL's playoff format was altered for the 1993-94 season, the Western Conference finals will feature a battle between Pacific Division teams.
While that may not be the ideal matchup for hockey purists, it's hard to argue that the Los Angeles Kings and Phoenix Coyotes didn't earn the right to play for the West title.
The Central Division was considered to be the strongest division out West during the regular season, as it sent four of five teams to the postseason and all four of those clubs recorded over 100 points. Meanwhile, the Pacific placed three teams in the playoffs this season, but none of them reached the 100-point mark, including the Coyotes, who won the division crown with 97 points to earn the West's No. 3 seed.
Along with the Coyotes and Kings, the San Jose Sharks were the other Pacific Division team to qualify for the postseason. Although Dallas and Anaheim finished outside the playoff picture, they were good enough to make the Pacific the only division in the NHL with three teams over 90 points and none with less than 80.
As always, the true strength of an NHL club is determined in the postseason, and by picking their way through the first two rounds, the Kings and Coyotes have boosted the perception of their division considerably.
Phoenix took out a pair of Central teams in reaching Round 3, eliminating both Chicago and Nashville in six games, respectively. Meanwhile, the eighth-seeded Kings have blazed a more impressive trail to the conference finals, shocking Vancouver -- the defending West champions and winner of consecutive Presidents' trophies -- in five games before sweeping the second-seeded St. Louis Blues in the second round.
In getting this far, both the Kings and Coyotes have achieved memorable firsts for their respective franchises. Los Angeles earned its first four-game sweep of a playoff series while ousting the Central Division champion Blues, and the Coyotes, who also were known as the Winnipeg Jets from 1972-96, are in the conference finals for the first time in franchise history.
Outside the Pacific Division connection, the biggest storyline heading into this series is the tremendous goaltending both Western Conference finalists have received in these playoffs.
Vezina Trophy finalist Jonathan Quick has posted a 1.55 goals against average and .949 save percentage while leading the Kings to an 8-1 record through the first two rounds.
As good as Quick has been, Mike Smith's goaltending probably has meant even more to Phoenix. He has faced 400 shots over 11 games this postseason and turned aside 379 of those pucks for a .948 save percentage and 1.77 GAA. Quick was less busy in the first two rounds, facing 274 shots over his nine starts.
With those guys in the crease, goals likely will be hard to come by in the West finals. The Kings and Coyotes, who played the last of six regular-season meetings on Feb. 21, split the 2011-12 season series and L.A. outscored Phoenix by a combined 13-12 margin in those encounters. However, nine of the 25 goals scored over the six battles came when the Coyotes posted a 5-4 shootout victory in the finale regular-season clash on Feb. 21.
While Los Angeles and Phoenix play in less than ideal hockey markets, that should have little effect on the quality of play in this upcoming series. The Coyotes finished just two points ahead of the Kings in the regular-season standings and both teams have played their best hockey of 2011-12 over the last few months.
Although the fan bases in both cities will never be confused with the rabid crowds that cheer for the NHL's Original Six clubs, the Kings and Coyotes should produce an excellent product on the ice.
These teams play similar styles that rely on toughness and goaltending, and there's hardly ever a shortage of animosity when two divisional rivals meet at any point in the playoffs.
Now that a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals is on the line, it's safe to say the acrimony between these franchises will be at an all-time high.
05/08 14:48:01 ET