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2018 NHL First-Round Playoff Preview: Los Angeles Kings vs. Vegas Golden Knights

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2018 NHL First-Round Playoff Preview: Los Angeles Kings vs. Vegas Golden Knights

Jeff Carter and Jonathan Marchessault Image by: Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images

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2018 NHL First-Round Playoff Preview: Los Angeles Kings vs. Vegas Golden Knights

The Hockey News
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Los Angeles Kings vs. Vegas Golden Knights: How They Win & How They Lose, 5 Things To Watch, THN Series Prediction and Playoff Depth Charts.

Go ahead and pinch yourself, but we can assure you this is no dream. In their inaugural season, this ragtag Golden Knights bunch are heading to the post-season as the top seed in the Pacific Division. A white-hot start saw Vegas blaze their way into the record books, and breakout seasons for William Karlsson, Erik Haula and Nate Schmidt kept the Golden Knights atop the division. The league’s newest club did start to cool off to as the post-season approached, though, and they could be starting to slide at the worst possible time. An experienced Los Angeles Kings group, led by Hart Trophy contender Anze Kopitar, isn’t going to be worried about facing the division’s top team. After all, it wasn’t all that long ago the Kings won the Stanley Cup as the West’s eighth seed, and they did so with several members of this current group.

LOS ANGELES KINGS
How They Win: Even with John Stevens replacing Darryl Sutter behind the bench, the Kings still play a heavy game — they’re third in the league in hits — but they aren’t quite the Corsi darlings they had been for such a long time. The Kings now place an emphasis on quality of shot rather than just firing the puck at the net. Los Angeles has, as a result, ramped up its shooting percentage and offense to the league average. But the key to the Kings winning is still very much about suppression. Goalie Jonathan Quick is having his best season in years and is L.A.’s best player on the best penalty killing unit in the league. The Kings also finish strong. They outscored opponents by nearly 40 goals in the third period, right at the top of the NHL with Boston in that category. Leading the way is 30-year-old kingpin Anze Kopitar with his best offensive season since 2009-10 while continuing to be a two-way force as a shutdown center.

How They Lose: The Kings play a much more up-tempo game under Stevens than they ever did under Sutter. Forwards such as Dustin Brown have been encouraged to think offense more than they did under the previous regime and be more selective about laying out a big hit. The downside is the Kings are giving up an additional six shots against per game (from 25.9 last season to 31.6 this year). That might drive some coaches or goalies crazy, and it flies in the face of the credo that defense wins in the playoffs. And Drew Doughty is sometimes thrown off his game when a pest such as Matthew Tkachuk is sent in his direction.

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
How They Win: No team in the league is more relentless on the forecheck than the Golden Knights. Game in, game out. What’s remarkable is this group has been together less than a season and they all got it from the beginning. That’s a feather in the cap for Gerard Gallant, easily the NHL’s coach of the year. The Vegas forecheck plan is to aggressively pressure defenders in their own zone, negating or rushing their breakout. On the counterattack, the Golden Knights have a balanced offense that moves the puck efficiently with great speed and has relied on a team shooting percentage well above the league average — unheard of for an expansion team. Vegas had five players — Karlsson, Haula, James Neal, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith — reach the 20-goal mark before any other team in the league had four players get to 20 goals.

How They Lose: The hockey gods get to the end of the fairytale book they’ve been writing? They all come back to earth at the same time? Seriously, attack them on the forecheck in the same fashion Gallant has the Golden Knights pressuring the opposition. The Vegas blueline is the least experienced in the league, and it’s prone to buckling under heat. Two years ago, only Brayden McNabb and Jason Garrison were second-pair defensemen around the league. The other were on the third pair on their former teams or in the minors. The Golden Knights aren’t a physical team. They prefer positioning and forechecking to win battles. A team that takes the body and pressures them to the boards will have success against these upstarts.

Five Things To Watch
1. At some point the clock has to strike midnight and Karlsson has to turn into a pumpkin. He’s been the NHL’s Cinderella Shooter this season, climbing from a 7.7 percent shooter in nearly 200 games to a sniper blasting away at 23.4 percent rate. The Kings blueline is going to key in on him, and that could result in a downturn at the most inopportune time.

2. Which Marc-Andre Fleury do the Golden Knights get? The veteran netminder turned in arguably the best campaign of his career, but he’s had his share of playoff misfortune. His career playoff save percentage is .908 and he has five post-seasons in which he had a SP lower than .900 with five or more games played. If that’s the Fleury that shows up against the Kings, Vegas could be in for an early exit.

3. Los Angeles desperately needs secondary scoring. Kopitar can’t continue to do this by himself. He outscored his next-highest scoring teammate by 31 points. This good be where Jeff Carter comes in, though. His return from injury came complete with 13 goals in 21 games and Carter is a proven playoff performer. Getting Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli going would also be a great help.

4. Cracking the Los Angeles defense with any consistency is a tall task. No team allowed fewer goals against, the Kings had the eighth-lowest shots against per game and their penalty kill was tops in the league. Not only that, Jonathan Quick seems to have returned to form after a few so-so seasons by posting the second-best full-season SP of his career. The only thing that can trip up Los Angeles’ blueline is the knock to Jake Muzzin, which threatens to force him out of a game or two to start the series.

5. The margin of victory or defeat could be razor thin if the season series was any indication. Vegas and Los Angeles played each other four times and the total goal differential across those contests was one. Two of the outings needed overtime to find a conclusion — the Kings and Golden Knights traded OT victories in games two and three of the season set — while Los Angeles won the final meeting 4-1 after dropping a 4-2 decision to Vegas weeks into the campaign.

THN Series Prediction: Kings in six.

LINE COMBOS, DEFENSE PAIRINGS & GOALIES:

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2018 NHL First-Round Playoff Preview: Los Angeles Kings vs. Vegas Golden Knights