Usually finishing first overall in the NHL bestows benefits on the President's Trophy winning team: psychological intimidation, home ice advantage, and a favorable match-up in the first round.
The first one is arguable, the second is guaranteed, but the third is out the window. In fact, Vancouver is facing perhaps the most difficult eighth seed the playoffs have seen since the lockout. Although the Los Angeles Kings managed 11 less wins and 16 less points than Vancouver during the regular season, some pundits have the Canucks as underdogs heading into the first round.
Vancouver's Offense: A little Less Explosive
Vancouver Canucks Offense: +22. 8 GVT (Rank:5th in NHL)
Los Angeles Kings Defense: +22.0 GVT (Rank: 2nd in NHL)
Los Angeles Kings Goaltending: +20.8 GVT (Rank: 4th in NHL)
Although Vancouver is still amongst the league leaders in terms of offense, their attack fell back from its previous heights in 2011-12. After winning the Art Ross Trophy two years running, the Sedin twins weren't even point-per-game players this year. Ryan Kesler fell back down to earth with 49 points in 77 games after managing career highs 41 goals and 73 points in 2010-11. Only the club's first line of Sedin-Sedin-Burrows garnered 50+ points each.
Alain Vigneault remains the most unique bench boss in the NHL, adamantly gifting his top-six forwards as many offensive zone starts as possible while burying the rest of the roster. As such, the Canucks big guns still tend to dominate shot totals and possession at even strength. A big reason their scoring dipped was less fortunate bounces: for the first time in three years, the Sedin's on-ice shooting percentage dipped beneath 10% (8.8 and 9.54 for Daniel and Henrik, respectively). Kesler's on-ice SH% was actually below league average (7.65).
The bad news for the Canucks comes in the form of Jonathan Quick and the Kings defense: LA surrendered the fourth-least amount of shots against this season and they are backed by a goalie in the midst of a Vezina (or Hart) quality season. Quick's step-wise progression from mediocre NHL goalie, to quality starter to elite puck stopper has been a remarkable one and it remains to be seen if he can sustain this level of play going forward. Still, his .933 even strength save percentage in 69 starts matches the best season by the likes of, say, Miikka Kiprusoff and he is the main reason the Kings were still within striking distance of the postseason when Darryl Sutter was hired midseason.
The Kings blueline features a number of capable defenders. Anchored by a top pairing of Drew Doughty and Rob Scuderi who face the big guns every night, Los Angeles has a decent mix of big, hard-edged defenders (including Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene) as well as mobile, offensively adept blueliners (including the aforementioned Doughty and emerging youngster Slava Voynov).
The club also benefited from the subtraction of the erratic Jack Johnson in the Jeff Carter tradealthough decent on the PP and in the offensive zone, Johnson is completely lost south of the red line and consistently boasted some of the worst possession rates on the Kings back end. With Johnson gone, the team removed some 15-20 minutes of chaos from their game every night.
Advantage: Los Angeles Kings
Los Angeles Offense: The Kings Lack of Punch
Los Angeles Kings Offense: -30.2 GVT (Rank: 29th in NHL)
Vancouver Canucks Defense: -0.6 GVT (Rank: 14th in NHL)
Vancouver Canucks Goaltending: +24.1 (Rank: 2nd in NHL)
Terry Murray was fired as the LA Kings head coach because his team simply couldn't score. Despite generally holding the bad guys to a minimum of shots and their goaltender experiencing a career best season, LA was just barely in the playoff picture midway through the season because pucks just weren't going in.
In came Darryl Sutter, and shortly after that, Jeff Carter. The Kings now boast one of the most intimidating top-ends in the West with Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Jason Williams, Mike Richards, and Carter. The club became the best outshooting team at even strength after the trade deadline this season and while they didn't completely cure their offensive woes (which are primarily percentage based), it does mean the Kings suddenly control play 5-on-5 better than anyone else in the league. If the puck starts going in for them at even a league average rate this postseason, the Canucks and just about everyone else in the league will find them a much tougher opponent. If LA can't find a way to increase the volume of their goals as well as their volume of shots, however, then they will need to contain the Canucks enough to win games 2-1 and 3-2.
For their part, Vancouver was surprisingly mediocre on the defensive end of things this season. The club stumbled during the doldrums of the year (between January and February) and habitually surrendered 30+ shots against per game. As a result, they ended up 21st in the NHL in terms of shots against with 2526, a full 278 more than LA gave up.
That said, Dan Hamhuis, Kevin Bieksa, and Alexander Edler remain a very strong trio at the top of the rotation for the Canucks. Bieksa and Hamhuis again faced the toughest competition on the team and yet led the blueline in possession. Edler anchored the second pairing, often with elder statesman Sami Salo. They also tended to outplay the bad guys, although Salo is certainly starting to slow and was likely held up by his younger partner.
If Vancouver has a weak spot on the back end, it's in positions 5-7: Andrew Alberts, Aaron Rome, and Keith Ballard can all struggle against marginal opposition on certain nights.
Of course, even if Vancouver struggles to keep the shots against down now and then, they are luckily backed by the second-best goaltending tandem in the league: Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider. In fact, there is something of a goaltending controversy heading into the first round due to Schneider's superior overall (.937) and even strength (.931) save percentages. Not that Luongo necessarily struggled or anything this year (.929 even strength save percentage). So while the Kings have the single goalie with the best save rate this round, the Canucks undeniably have the superior redundancy.
Advantage: Vancouver Canucks
Vancouver Power Play vs. Los Angeles Penalty Kill
Vancouver Power Play: +7.1 GVT (Rank: 5th in NHL)
Los Angeles Penalty Kill: +12.7 GVT (Rank: 4th in NHL)
Although the Canucks effectiveness at scoring at 5-on-5 went down this season, they remain a truly fearsome club with the man advantage. With a first unit featuring the Sedins, Kesler, and Edler, Vancouver finished the season with the fourth-best PP success rate (19.8%) and fifth-best GVT. The twins finished with 27 (Henrik) and 25 (Daniel) points, good for 10th and 15th in the league, respectively (and that is despite Daniel missing 10 games due to injury). Ryan Kesler may have struggled to score as much as he did last year, but he still finished fourth on the team with a respectable 19 points with the man advantage. Edler filled the role of former Canuck Christian Ehrhoff from the point and garnered an impressive 22 PP points in 82 games (seventh most amongst blueliners).
At the other end of the spectrum, the Kings gave up just 38 PP goals this season, thanks to their fourth-best PK (87.0%). The good news from a Vancouver perspective is the Kings also put their enemies on the power play a lottheir 293 times shorthanded was the sixth most overall during the regular season.
The primary figures on the Kings PK were big guys like Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene on the back end and centers Anze Kopitar and Jarrett Stoll up front. Mike Richards and Drew Doughty also saw significant time while down a man, which shows the Kings weren't afraid to staff the PK with their best players rather than third and fourth line "energy players". The strategy seems to have worked.
Los Angeles Power Play vs. Vancouver Penalty Kill
Los Angeles Power Play: -1.0 GVT (Rank: 17th in NHL)
Vancouver Penalty Kill: +9.5 GVT (Rank: 5th in the NHL)
In contrast to their penalty kill, the Kings power play was entirely mediocre. They finished tied for 16th overall with a 17.0% success rate. If LA could have found a way to finish more with the man advantage, it could have helped their considerable offensive problems this season since they managed to draw 289 PPsgood for sixth most in the league.
The Kings' problem wasn't just frequency of goals while up a man; in fact, they managed just 45.1 shots per 60 minutes of ice at five-on-four, the seventh-worst rate in the NHL. Vancouver, in contrast, generated 56.1 shots per 60. There's little reason LA's PP should be this inefficient given the collection of talent the team boasts. With Kopitar, Richards, and Carter, the Kings have no less than three offensively capable pivots, as well as strong wingers like Brown and Williams. Throw in Doughty, Voynov, and Stoll (who has a big blast from the blue line) and you have a better than average crew on paper. On the ice, however, LA has yet to really figure out how to make it all work.
The Canucks matched their potent PP with a stingy PK. Sammy Pahlsson, Manny Malhotra, and Kesler are all highly capable defensive centermen who have paced penalty kills throughout their respective careers. Hamhuis and Bieksa form a strong duo short-handed as well while guys like Chris Higgins and Jannik Hansen round out the primary SH crew.
On top of the strong group of skaters, Vancouver also benefited from some better than average luck in net this year: Cory Schneider's .959 SH SV% was better than his ridiculously good ES save rate and no doubt as much an artifact of fortune as skill. The good news for the Kings is probable starter Robert Luongo's short-handed save percentage was entirely average (.870).
Advantage: Vancouver Canucks
Injuries and Intangibles
As mentioned, Daniel Sedin finished the regular season on the sidelines, but there are rumors he will be ready to go once the first round starts. If he returns at 100%, Daniel will naturally be a big boost to a top six that was skating Max Lapierre on the top line in his absence.
The Kings have been playing without free agent signing Simon Gagne for most of the year (which is usually what happens to teams with Gagne on the roster), so his absence will have far less of an impact.
At a glance, the Kings are an underdog in this fight, but their improvement since switching coaches and acquiring Jeff Carter has been substantial. Their seasonal stats are therefore not truly indicative of the team's talent level, which is why the Canucks will be facing perhaps the stiffest test of any division leader in the first round.
There isn't a lot to separate these two clubs: both are elite in a number of aspects, although the Canucks have proven to be far more potent in terms of offense and have greater depth in net. On the other hand, the Kings controlled play better than any other team in the final quarter of the season and are one of the few clubs in the league who have a decent chance of shutting down the Canucks offense for extended periods of time.
As a result, this match-up has all the makings of a potential upset.
Los Angeles Kings in seven games