GLENDALE, Ariz. – Wayne Gretzky gave hockey in Los Angeles a significant boost in his eight seasons with the Kings, providing them with some cache in an overloaded market while boosting attendance and interest all the way down to the youth level.
He had a similar impact as owner and later coach of the Phoenix Coyotes, though to a different extent and without nearly as much success.
Thriving long after Gretzky was gone, the Kings and Coyotes are still reaping the benefits of the Great One’s influence as they get ready to start the Western Conference finals Sunday night in the desert.
“His imprint is certainly on both teams,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. “Both teams should be grateful for the imprint that he’s left on them.”
Just don’t expect any carry-over affection between these teams.
Bottom line is, they just don’t like each other.
As Pacific Division rivals, the Kings and Coyotes play each other six times a season, enough build up animosity, from an entire team standpoint down to individual battles.
The games are always physical and the ones this season were particularly brutal, featuring high sticks and hooks, questionable hits, plenty of face washing and nearly as many fights as goals.
The Coyotes’ 1-0 victory Feb. 16 in Los Angeles featured four brawls, including three in the first period and one between captains Shane Doan and Dustin Brown after Brown knocked Coyotes defenceman Rusty Klesla out the game with a hard hit. Five days later, Kings winger Kyle Clifford received a game misconduct for a shot to Phoenix centre Gilbert Brule’s head.
With the teams facing each other in the playoffs for the first time and a trip to the Stanley Cup finals on the line, things could really get testy.
“We’ve had some pretty intense, physical games already,” Doan said. “I’m assuming that it’s just going to kind of go up even more than that.”
The series will feature two teams few expected to still be around this late in the season.
One of the NHL’s worst-scoring teams early in the season, the Kings cost coach Terry Murray his job on Dec. 20. He was replaced by Darryl Sutter and though the scoring picked up a little, Los Angeles still had to rely heavily on goalie Jonathan Quick and ended up being the last team to make the playoffs in the West after Phoenix made a run to take the division title.
The Kings were underdogs in each of their first two playoff series, yet didn’t seem to be fazed. Los Angeles ran past Vancouver in the opening round and swept St. Louis out of the second to reach the Western Conference finals for the first time since 1993, when Gretzky led them to the Stanley Cup finals against Montreal. Los Angeles is the first No. 8 seed to knock off Nos. 1 and 2 in the same playoffs, and has an eye on No. 3, the Coyotes.
“A lot of trials and tribulations for this team this year,” Brown said. “It hasn’t been an easy year for us to go through a coaching change, we had some losing streaks, we were fighting for a playoff spot pretty much the whole season. It just kind of all came together.”
The Kings at least had some expectations heading into the season. The Coyotes were picked by many to miss the playoffs, not make a run to the conference finals.
They’re a group that doesn’t like to be told what they can’t do and used the low projections as motivation, shaking off a brutal first half of the season to win their first division title in 33 years as an NHL franchise.
Despite being a higher seed, Phoenix was an underdog in its first two playoff series, in part because the team hadn’t advanced past the first round since 1987—nine years before moving to the desert.
The Coyotes didn’t let that bother them, either, riding the superb goaltending of Mike Smith and a by-the-seat-of-their-pants style to reach the conference finals for the first time.
The run has allowed the team to reconnect with a fan base that had fallen into a malaise while the team played without an owner for the past three seasons.
“We feel we’ve been in survival mode for three years, really since Dave (coach Tippett) showed up,” Coyotes general manager Don Maloney said. “This is great for us and our franchise. We’re certainly not satisfied to just sit here today. We want to go further.”
Getting to the Stanley Cup finals won’t be easy for either team, not with the goalie matchup this series features.
Though the play differing styles, Smith and Quick have been equally dominant.
Smith made the Coyotes look awfully smart for signing him to replace Ilya Bryzgalov, becoming one of the NHL’s best goaltenders in his first full season as a No. 1.
The big, athletic goalie was among the league leaders in wins (38), save percentage (.930) and shutouts (eight) during the regular season to get the Coyotes into the playoffs. He’s been stellar in the post-season, singlehandedly carrying the Coyotes at times while posting a 1.77 goals-against average and .948 save percentage with a pair of shutouts.
His counterpart, Quick, was even better, keeping the Kings in the playoff picture despite their inability to score during the regular season. He is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy after setting a franchise record with 10 shutouts, finishing second in the NHL with a 1.95 goals-against average and winning 35 games.
Quick has been dominating in the playoffs, allowing 14 goals in nine playoff games against the Western Conference’s top two teams for a goals-against average of 1.55 and a .949 save percentage.
The games during the regular season were tight—three of six went to overtime or a shootout, all but one won by a goal—and everyone’s expecting the same thing with Smith and Quick between the pipes.
“It’ll be a tough one for us,” Kings defenceman Drew Doughty said. “They’re a very close team to us. Both teams have great goaltending, great defence and great forwards, so the matchup is due to be hard-fought and with a lot of rough stuff.”