With 33 points in his first 27 games (including 21 in his first 14) there wasn't a hotter player in the NHL to open the season than Anze Kopitar. And while the Kings' 22-year-old center cooled off considerably over the final four months of the season (just 48 points in 55 games), he still finished with a career-best 34 goals and 81 points to lead the team in scoring, helping Los Angeles make its first trip to the playoffs since 2001-02.
The Kings' first round opponent will be the Northwest Division champion Vancouver Canucks, a team that defeated them three of the four times they met in the regular season.
One of the most common matchups in those games -- and a matchup we could see in the playoffs -- featured Kopitar going up against one of the NHL's best shutdown centers, and a Selke Trophy finalist a year ago, Ryan Kesler.
The Matchup: Ryan Kesler vs. Anze Kopitar
The primary focus here will be how Kopitar performed when he had to face Kesler. Over the past two years he's played eight games against the Canucks, recording two goals and three assists, including three points (one goal, two assists) in the four games this season.
Here's the breakdown of what Kopitar did when matched up against Kesler this season during even strength situations, as well as how he performed against other Vancouver lines.
Despite managing more shots on goal against Kesler's lines, he was completely held off the scoresheet, while managing two points against Vancouver's other lines. Just as a comparison, in those same 38 shifts Kesler was credited with four shots on goal against Kopitar's line, scoring a goal and adding an assist.
After you lose a faceoff in the neutral zone, you have time to set up defensively and you don't give up a particularly large number of good scoring opportunities. However, when you lose a faceoff in your own end, opponent shots on goal go up so quickly that it's as though you gave the other team a 10-15 second power-play. For several seconds, the rate of shots allowed is as high as it is on a 5-on-3. The prospect of this level of defensive disadvantage, particularly late in a one-goal game, must give coaches nightmares.With all that in mind, it's worth looking at how the faceoff matchup went this season in each of the three zones.
When you consider that Kesler is one of the NHL's best (55 percent), while Kopitar wins just below 50 percent of his draws, it's not a surprise that Kesler dominated this matchup, even when he was forced to start in his own zone. Take a look...
The Kings did a fantastic job making sure Kopitar didn't have to take faceoffs in the defensive zone against Kesler, and for good reason. The few times he was put into that situation were mostly the result of icing calls that forced him to remain on the ice.
The key number here, for me, is the job Kesler did in his own zone, winning 15 of the 19 such draws he took against Kopitar. Against the other Canucks centers, Kopitar was a more-than-respectable 7-for-13 (53 percent) in the offensive zone. Obviously, the key for the Vancouver coaching staff won't be just about making sure Kesler is matched up against the Kings' most dangerous offensive forward, but also making sure he's the one taking the key faceoffs against him in front of Roberto Luongo.
1) Los Angeles' Defense vs. The Sedin Twins
Stopping Kopitar will be the No. 1 task at hand for the Canucks; for the Kings, it's going to be stopping the insanity that is Henrik and Daniel Sedin. Henrik is the NHL's scoring champion with 112 points, while Daniel managed to put up a career high 85 points in just 63 games. This will likely fall on the young shoulders of Drew Doughty, who enters the postseason averaging a team-high 24 minutes of ice-time per game.
2) Jonathan Quick vs. Inexperience
Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick has played 119 games in his brief NHL career. His next playoff game, however, will be his first. How the 24-year-old deals with the pressures of the postseason -- as well as the skill of Vancouver's offense -- will play a big role in whether or not the Kings advance to the second round for the first time in a decade.
Meanwhile, Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo has a reputation of struggling in "big games," but the numbers don't always back up the claim. He also silenced some critics back in February when he came off the bench to help lead Canada to a Gold Medal during the Olympics.