GLENDALE, Ariz. – If the rules allowed it, the Western Conference final would be over, the towel thrown in on a Phoenix Coyotes team that has run into a freight train that's showing no sign of slowing down.
Oh, the Coyotes threw everything they had at the Los Angeles Kings in Game 2 – a Shane Doan shove to the back of Trevor Lewis, a Mike Smith slash to Dustin Brown's leg, a dangerous Martin Hanzal crosscheck that sent Brown face-first into the boards – yet when it was all over the scoreboard read 4-0 for the Kings.
L.A. came to Phoenix riding a five-game road winning streak; they're leaving with it at seven, a count that ties the longest in NHL playoff history. That's where this team is right now, in the midst of a historic run that could end up being the best the NHL playoffs have witnessed since going to its current 16-team format.
The standard bearers are the '88 Edmonton Oilers. Remember them? Gretzky. Messier. Kurri. Fuhr. They went 16-2 en route to winning the Stanley Cup.
The Kings are 10-1, with still a lot of hockey to play.
"I don't look at it as a remarkable run," said Kings coach Darryl Sutter in his typically unimpressed manner. "I think we won the first game. We are going to have to play better next game than we did tonight, I know that."
When Sutter arrived in L.A. in late December, taking over for the ousted Terry Murray, he asked his players what kind of team they thought they were. They didn't know. And when you don't know that, winger Justin Williams said, "you've got issues."
Sutter held up a mirror and showed them: you're quick, smart, physical. Don't get impressed with yourself. Focus on what's next. Know your identity. Be that player. And above all else, always know you can be better. This is the formula Sutter has used to turn a forgettable team into potentially an all-timer.
Their lone blemish so far in these playoffs was a 3-1 home loss against top-seeded Vancouver in Round 1, their toughest series yet. They won it 4-1. In cruising through the postseason, the Kings are defying conventional wisdom, which says things get tougher the deeper you go. They swept the Blues in Round 2 and all signs point to them doing the same to the Coyotes in the West final.
At this point, the biggest concern is the health of Brown, their captain and best player in the playoffs. The hit he took from Hanzal left him face down on the ice before he gingerly skated back to the bench. He didn't miss a shift and assisted on Jeff Carter's third goal of the game midway through the third period. But when asked after the game how he felt, Brown responded, "No comment."
Doan's hit that left Lewis with a bloodied nose was borderline dirty; the ones on Brown from Hanzal and Smith – "I'm just in the heat of the moment," said the Coyotes goalie – were clear attempts to rough up the Kings' team leader.
"I have a problem with two of their hits," Brown said.
Does the hit from Hanzal, who along with Doan was given a game misconduct, warrant a suspension?
"No comment," Brown replied.
And why should he?
The Coyotes eked their way into the conference final on the magic of Smith. But that jig is up.
Carter had a hat trick, Jonathan Quick pitched a shutout and they're mere footnotes in the story. This team is giving Sutter everything he's demanded of them, which has turned Phoenix into a pit stop for the Kings in their journey to the Stanley Cup final.
Some will bristle at this, but the next two games of this series – or three, if the Coyotes manage to win one – are formalities, played out only because the rules stipulate you must win four. And once the Kings win four, it will be onto the Cup final – at which point Sutter will be thoroughly unimpressed.
You can do everything better, remember?
"That's pretty much what our motto has been," Williams said. "Even though we've had some success, it's never going to be good enough until we win that last game of the year. That's his motto and that's been ours as well."
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