In the great big ol’ United States of America, certain parts of the country just seem to care about one sport in particular. The southeast, for example, is much more passionate about college football than anyone living in New England. Hockey, you can assume from needing a sheet of ice to play the sport, has always been more of a “Northern” sport, most popular in Canada but also with its biggest fans in states that border it (Michigan, Minnesota, etc). However, the team that will represent the West in the Stanley Cup Finals this year will be from the southwest – either the Los Angeles Kings or the Phoenix Coyotes. Both teams will be searching for their first Cup, something the Kings couldn’t do when they had Wayne Gretzky, the greatest hockey player to ever lace up skates. But first, each has to get by the other team – specifically, the other team’s elite goaltender.
Coyotes: What I love about hockey is that it’s the absolute best sport for an underdog to come out of nowhere. For those of you that don’t follow hockey, the Phoenix Coyotes are the New Orleans Hornets of the NHL. The Kansas City Royals of the NHL. The Jacksonville Jaguars. Their top scorer in the playoffs is Antoine Vermette, a name you rarely hear on Sportscenter. Their team payroll is ninth-lowest in the NHL. At the beginning of the season, many pegged them as a team who’d contend for worst in the NHL. Every single playoff round, experts had overwhelmingly picked the other team to eliminate the Coyotes. Yet, here they stand, 8 wins away from bringing Arizona it’s first Stanley Cup. There are still major problems with Phoenix’s ownership, and even with making the final four, some still predict the franchise could move to Seattle, Quebec, Kansas City, or any other city that wants an NHL team. If they win the Cup, I expect commissioner Bettman to do whatever possible to keep the Coyotes in Arizona – the NHL would lose massive credibility if even the Stanley Cup Champions are relocating.
Potential Conn Smythe Winner: Mike Smith. It’s clear the main theme in the 2012 playoffs has been goaltending. No remaining goalie has a GAA higher than 2.05, but the biggest surprise is most definitely Smith. Lundqvist and Quick were two of the best goalies of the regular season, and Brodeur may be the greatest goalie of all time (that argument gets stronger if he takes home another cup). But Mike Smith, who makes a mere $2 million dollars this year (that’s not very much?), has taken this team on their back and established himself. He’s the ace starting pitcher with mediocre batters who still manages to win games. Goalie play can be very inconsistent season-to-season, but if Smith can keep these numbers up, he’ll be one of the games top goalies soon.
Kings: The Kings are in no danger of relocating, and their forwards pack more starpower than Phoenix, but they’ve always been overshadowed by the teams they share an arena with, especially this season. Before CP3 became a Clipper, the Lakers were the show in town, and the bandwagony Los Angeles fanbase attached to Kobe like crazy. Now, things are different: Kobe is getting older, and one of the best young point guards in the game plays for the Clippers. What a perfect time for the Kings to really start getting good, start getting people to notice, and possibly make the Cup finals? The trades for Penner and Carter, while many screamed overpayment when they were first made, have paid off wonderfully. With both the Lakers and Clippers still in the playoffs, the Staples Center is seeing a lot of playoff action at the moment, and it would be wonderful for the city of Los Angeles if they could take home an NBA Championship and a Stanley Cup in one season.
Potential Conn Smythe Winner: Okay, it’s probably Quick, but I’ve talked about him before and I don’t need to tell anyone he’s an excellent goaltender. This is for potential Conn Smythe winners, so I want to single out the captain of the Kings, Dustin Brown. Brown was always known more as a defensively responsible forward, as opposed to a pure sniper who racks up the points, but his all-around game has been superb and he’s really proving why he deserves to wear the C on his sweater. He currently leads the Kings in goals, points, plus/minus, hits, and shots. As good as Quick is, he can only save the puck when the opposing team shoots it – Brown seems to be able to do practically everything else on the ice.
Prediction: I’ve gone against the Coyotes every round, but the Kings, an 8th seed, have already taken down the 1st & 2nd seeds – taking down the 3rd seed would be too sweetly poetic. I don’t think the Coyotes will make it easy for them, but I see the Kings winning in 6, the clinching game in Los Angeles. Even though that’s my official prediction, anyone whose watched Mike Smith these playoffs knows the Coyotes could easily win in 4-5 games.