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Contenders & Pretenders

[originally post for www.betonhockey.com April 23, 2012]

It only varies by a couple of weeks to a couple of months each year, but if there’s anything that functions like clockwork in the NHL, it may just be the Vancouver Canucks’ elimination from Stanley Cup contention.

As the Los Angeles Kings gradually got up on the Canucks in their quarterfinal series by one game, then two, then three, the question that kept resounding in my head was, “Are the Kings actually legit contenders this year, or are the Canucks total pretenders?”

Of course, I’ll subjectively take the opportunity to rag on the Canucks whenever I can, but objectively speaking, there’s no reason Vancouver should have been considered a pretender, or lost the series. As much as many mock the President’s Trophy for being meaningless in the long run (myself included), it’s certainly a poignant marker of how darn good you were all year. The Canucks had a good team this season, and their players had productive seasons too — both Sedin’s finished in the NHL’s top 30 for points, even with Daniel missing ten games; Hamhuis was 6th in league plus/minus at +29, Schneider finished eighth in save percentage with .937, and tenth in GAA with 1.96; Luongo finished 14th in wins with 31 – but when it came time to put up, they got shut up. After all, the first seed is supposed to have their way with the eighth seed that just managed to sneak into the playoffs by the skin of their teeth, right? Were they looking to far ahead – all the way to their return to the finals – without remembering the first step is the first round?

During the regular season, Vancouver finished 16 points ahead of LA in the standings, and scored 53 more goals than them (LA was second last in the league in Goals For), yet they only managed to split their season series against the Kings 2-2, and were outscored 7-9 by them in those four games. When it came around to playoff time, Vancouver only won 1 of 5 games, and was outscored 12-8, by a team that was synonymous with being unable to score all year. For a team that many thought Vancouver would walk all over (admittedly, myself included), LA kind of had their way with the Canucks all year – most importantly, when it counted.

So what went wrong? The biggest excuses are likely that Daniel Sedin wasn’t around the whole series, but his 2 assists in 2 games were still good enough for 5th in points on the team, ahead of 17 others who produced less. Henrik Sedin’s 5 points were equal to LA’s point leader, Dustin Brown. Two of Brown’s though were short-handed goals in the same game, and absolute daggers at that. All in, LA’s players recorded 30 points amongst themselves, while Vancouver only managed 23.

Goaltending-wise, it’s not like things were all that bad – Schneider’s 3 starts produced a 1.31 GAA and .960 save percentage (actually better than LA’s Jonathan Quick, who posted a 1.59 GAA and .953 save percentage), while Luongo was admittedly worse with a 3.59 GAA and .891; but each had an equal amount of losses to their credit. Quick faced 172 shots, while both Vancouver goalies combined only saw 165.

Many are going to gripe that there should have been a penalty on the play that saw Dan Hamhuis turn the puck over to Jarret Stoll, who buried the OT winner – even if that were valid, that’s one game, out of four lost. That’s why they’re seven game series. Some are even going to point at the extended layoffs between games 3,4, and 5 due to arena booking conflicts – truth be told, that was actually probably more of an advantage for Vancouver, who needed injured players like Daniel Sedin to heal and return. And some yet may just be embarrassed by the diving antics of guys like Ryan Kesler – well, you should be, that was just embarrassing.

But all excuses and kidding aside, now that the dust has settled and the smoke has cleared in this series, we’d be foolish not to consider the Los Angeles Kings a legit Stanley Cup contender – after all, they did just eliminate the league’s #1 seeded team. The Kings proved their toughness through the first round, and have big bodies that can cause a lot of damage against tougher teams. They’ve proved they can neutralize a strong offence with hot goaltending and a potent penalty kill, and their offence is clicking. The additions of Darryl Sutter, Jeff Carter, et al are beginning to make it look like LA’s owner Dean Lombardi knew what he was doing all along.

So if you can beat the best team in the league, who can’t you beat? It’s time the LA Kings are painted as a contender — we know now who the real pretenders were.

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