Based on an informal review of online pundits — those from TSN, ESPN, SportsNet, NHL.com, etc. — the Vancouver Canucks are the heavy favorites in this first-round series against the Kings. Out of a couple dozen predictions, I’ve seen two people pick the Kings to upset the Canucks. The general feeling seems to be that if the Kings could get by the Canucks, they could do some damage, but that they won’t get past the Canucks. To be certain, though, far stranger things have happened in the playoffs. What will it take? I’ve picked out the top three matchups that I believe the Kings must win in order for them to have a chance to upset the Canucks. What other areas/matchups would you pick?
1. QUICK VS. LUONGO
At the start of every playoff series, the spotlight grows hotter on the two goalies. Perhaps in none of this year’s eight series will the goalies be under more scrutiny than in this one. Jonathan Quick is seen as the Great Masked Hope for the Kings. Correctly or not, the widely-held view, among NHL pundits, is that Quick will have to “steal’’ a couple games in order for the Kings to beat Vancouver. Certainly he’s capable of doing that, as Quick is expected to be a Vezina Trophy finalist this season, but Quick looked less than dominant down the stretch in the regular season, and his first two playoff series weren’t stellar. Across the ice, Roberto Luongo will be watched very closely. Luongo is an excellent goalie, but locally he is knocked for not being at his best in the playoffs, even though he helped the Canucks to the Stanley Cup Finals last season. If the Kings could come in and beat Luongo in Game 1, the grumbling will commence in Vancouver and the pressure on Luongo would figure to increase.
2. CARTER VS. D. SEDIN
This isn’t necessarily a head-to-head matchup, but it is a question of which injured star will be able to return and have the bigger impact. Carter missed the Kings’ final five regular-season games because of an ankle injury, and Daniel Sedin missed the Canucks’ final nine regular-season games because of a concussion. It would be a surprise if both players were not in their respective teams’ Game 1 lineups. Daniel Sedin is a 30-goal scorer and a huge threat, but Carter’s impact on the Kings is potentially bigger, especially in the first two games. At home, the Canucks get the final line change and have the ability to get the matchups they want. Vancouver will be able to play its checking line against the Kings’ top line, centered by Anze Kopitar. The best way for the Kings to overcome that is to have a threatening second line. If Carter and center Mike Richards play well, the Kings will be harder to match up against. If not, and if the Canucks can neutralize the Kopitar line, it might be a short series.
3. POWER PLAY VS. PENALTY KILL
Goals might be at a premium in this series, which means that every power play will be huge. To that end, on paper the Canucks have a big advantage. In the regular season, the Canucks had the NHL’s fourth-best power play and the sixth-best penalty kill. The Kings had the fourth-best penalty kill in the regular season, so if they can limit Vancouver’s power-play production, they will go a long way toward improving their chances in the series. There might be a bit of a concern that the Kings allowed three power-play goals in a game last week. The Kings’ power play is the wild card. If the power-play-goal gap ends up being heavily in Vancouver’s favor, the Canucks will likely win the series easily. The Kings’ power play was awful for most of the season, but did enjoy an upswing after the arrival of Jeff Carter. With Carter back in the lineup, and on the first power-play unit, can he once again bring some life to the group? If the Kings can keep the special-teams goal differential close, they will give themselves a fighting chance.