The Western Conference finals will get underway tonight in the desert, as the Phoenix Coyotes host the rival Los Angeles Kings for Game 1 at Jobing.com Arena.
Although the Kings are the eighth and last seed in the West, they only finished two points behind Phoenix for the Pacific Division title this season.
Los Angeles certainly has shown it is not your average No. 8 team in this postseason, as the Kings have needed just nine games to eliminate the West's top-two seeds. L.A. ousted No. 1 Vancouver -- last year's conference champions -- in five games and then posted its first-ever four-game sweep in the second round against second-seeded St. Louis. As a result, the Kings are in the conference finals for the first time since Wayne Gretzky led the franchise to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1993.
Meanwhile, the third-seeded Coyotes, a team that began NHL play as the Winnipeg Jets during the 1979-80 season and moved to Phoenix following the 1995-96 campaign, are in the conference finals for the first time in franchise history.
Phoenix has arrived at this stage after beating Chicago in six games in Round 1 and disposing of Nashville in five games during the conference semifinals.
While the Coyotes have played strong defensive hockey since head coach Dave Tippett took over the team prior to the 2009-10 season, Phoenix has taken its game to another level thanks in large part to the goaltending of Mike Smith.
Smith, who signed a two-year, $2 million deal with Phoenix last summer, exceeded all expectations in the 2011-12 regular season, going 38-18-10 with a 2.21 goals-against average, .930 save percentage and eight shutouts. The 30- year-old has performed even better in this postseason, posting a 1.77 GAA and a .948 save percentage through 11 games. All told, Smith has stopped 379- of-400 shots sent his way in the 2012 playoffs and has also recorded a pair of shutouts.
While Smith clearly has been the MVP of Phoenix's run so far, the Coyotes have used a balanced approach to scoring. The Coyotes have 13 different goal- scorers and nine of those players have recorded two or more markers.
Surprisingly, the player leading the way on offense for the Coyotes this spring has been veteran centerman Antoine Vermette, who was acquired from Columbus with little fanfare at the trade deadline. Vermette entered this postseason with only four goals and four assists in 42 career playoff games, but has exploded for five goals and four helpers in 11 games this postseason.
Mikkel Boedker, Shane Doan, Martin Hanzal Taylor Pyatt each have three goals this postseason and Boedker is second to Vermette on the team with seven points. Coyotes defensemen Keith Yandle and Rostislav Klesla also have seven points apiece in this postseason.
"As you get closer, you get a little anxious. We had a couple good days off," Tippett said about getting this series started.
Like the Coyotes, Darryl Sutter's Kings also are built around their goaltender, but Los Angeles seems to boast a more dynamic offense than Phoenix.
After garnering a Vezina Trophy finalist spot for his spectacular regular season, Jonathan Quick has continued to play brilliantly between the pipes in the playoffs. Quick is 8-1 with a 1.55 GAA and .949 save percentage, but he has not been as busy as Smith, stopping 260-of-274 shots along the way.
The Kings have relied on 15 different goal-scorers in these playoffs to get to the conference final round for the first time in 19 years.
Captain Dustin Brown not only has been the emotional leader for the Kings, but he's been the club's best offensive weapon this postseason as well. Brown is leading the team in goals (6), points (11) and plus-minus (plus-9). He's also first on the team with two short-handed goals and is tied with Jarret Stoll with two game-winning tallies.
Anze Kopitar is perhaps the best all-around forward for the Kings and is second to Brown this postseason with 10 points on three goals and seven assists. The Slovenian has also developed into an excellent defensive player and is leading all L.A. forwards in average ice time (21:20) in these playoffs.
Another two-way threat for the Kings is Mike Richards, who was acquired in a blockbuster trade with Philadelphia last summer. The former Flyers captain is one of the NHL's premier penalty killers and has posted three goals and five assists in his first nine playoff games as a King. Richards has 58 points (19G, 39A) in 72 career postseason games.
Jeff Carter, a longtime teammate of Richards in Philadelphia, has the skills to be a top-notch sniper, but the former 40-goal scorer has posted one goal and three assists in this playoff run. Meanwhile, Dustin Penner has exceeded expectations this spring with seven points on two goals and five assists.
Drew Doughty is the leader of the L.A. defense and is averaging a team-high 25:45 of ice time a game in the playoffs. He is also leading the Kings' blue line with six points on one goal and five assists and is a plus-seven for the postseason.
"We still have that main defensive base that we focus on, but with the guys getting their confidence and learning their linemates, that's why we're putting more pucks in the net," Doughty recently told NHL.com. "We all know in here that we can continue to keep going."
The one and only weakness L.A. has shown in the playoffs is its inability to produce goals on the power play. The Kings were ranked 16th in PP efficiency during the 2011-12 campaign, but they've scored just four times on 47 opportunities (8.5 percent) this postseason.
One reason L.A.'s lack of success on the power play hasn't hurt the Kings is that they're an excellent penalty-killing team that has offset its lack of production on the man advantage with four short-handed goals this spring. Los Angeles has also killed off 35-of-38 penalties (92.1 percent) in the 2012 postseason.
This is the first time the Kings and Coyotes will meet in the postseason, but the Pacific rivals did face each other six times during the 2011-12 campaign. The Kings and Coyotes split the season series and three of the meetings went past regulation. All told, L.A. outscored Phoenix by a 13-12 margin, but nine of the 25 goals scored over the six battles came when the Coyotes posted a 5-4 shootout victory in the final regular-season clash between the clubs on Feb. 21.
A key player for Phoenix in this series is forward Radim Vrbata, who led the Coyotes with 35 goals during the regular season, but has posted only two goals and two assists in 11 games this postseason. Vrbata was the best player for the Coyotes against L.A. this season, recording five goals and seven points over the six encounters.
Brown and Kopitar each posted five points in the season series against the Coyotes, while Carter has yet to face Phoenix as a member of the Kings.
Smith and Quick compiled nearly identical numbers against each other's teams this season. The Coyotes netminder was 3-1-1 with a 1.75 GAA in the series, while Quick was 3-1-2 with a 1.78 GAA.
The Coyotes, who will also host Game 2 on Tuesday, are 4-2 on home ice in the playoffs after posting a 22-13-6 record at Jobing.com Arena during the regular season.
Los Angeles has a perfect 5-0 record on the road this postseason. The Kings were 18-13-10 as the guest during the 2011-12 campaign.