NHL Pacific Division: Kings Are Still the Kings
The Los Angeles Kings have won two of the last three Stanley Cups, and they've done it both times as the underdog.
They were clinical in winning many playoff games on the road, including Games 7.
This season, the Kings -- aided by a six-game homestand that they swept -- will be right in the hunt again for both the Pacific Division and Western Conference crowns. Led by all-everything goalie Jonathan Quick and playoff stalwart Justin Williams, Los Angeles will enter the playoffs seeded anywhere and still be picked to make at least the Western finals.
Anaheim's Ducks lost at home to the Kings in the second round's seventh game last season and could be poised to take the next step to the Conference finals. The Ducks need John Gibson to play like he did last spring, and especially like he did against Chicago recently when he posted a 38-save, 1-0 shutout.
San José watched the Kings parade the Stanley Cup around Staples Center after they blew a three-games-to-none lead in the first round. The Sharks are capable of making a run in the playoffs but like every other team, will need their goalie, Antti Niemi, to stand out. Team management mystified its fans by pulling the captaincy from Joe Thornton and the alternate role from Patrick Marleau in what amounted to a petty shake-up, but the players still know who calls the shots. It's one reason why no replacement was named.
It'd be an upset if any of the other four clubs in this division made the playoffs. Arizona -- yes, it's not Phoenix anymore -- always seems to hang around, but doesn't have enough talent to make the playoffs. Goalie Mike Smith can be great at times, but the Coyotes struggle to score and will struggle to move up in the competitive Pacific Division.
The three Canadian teams -- Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton -- will all be watching hockey on televison in April.
The Canucks have a new coach in Willie Desjardins and a new goalie in Ryan Miller but have a way to go before they are contenders again. At least Desjardins did a 180 on John Torterella's approach and has the Nux playing back to what they're built to do, ie- be creative offensively. However, the defense may suffer again which is exactly why Torts was brought in last year.
Calgary has struggled for years and has a Stanley Cup winning coach in Bob Hartley, for now, but this is another team that will come up short in the end. The fans are passionate, of course, but on the ice, the Flames are just there, rounding out the league. Groundhog Day, every year. Nothing more, nothing less.
The Edmonton Oilers have been at bottom-feeding for years, now. Everyone is waiting for all the high draft picks to start panning out, and the locals are getting restless. Taylor Hall has been good, but not great. Goalie Ben Scrivens can pitch a shut out at anytime, but may still wind up protecting the pipes in a shootout. Russian winger Nail Yakupov can be dazzling, but not enough to offset his stunning plus-minus of -33 last season.
In the end, though, no matter where the Kings finish, if they're healthy, everyone will be wary of playing them at any time in the playoffs.