First-round breakdown: Canucks-Kings
This is an intriguing matchup of two teams with a lot to prove this postseason.
The Canucks are a team that fancies itself a Stanley Cup contender, but they couldn't put away a youthful Chicago team in the second round a year ago and enter the playoffs with a top-end goaltender that may or may not be suffering a crisis of confidence.
The Kings, meanwhile, are in the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and appear on the cusp of finally realizing the considerable potential they possess after years of floundering in the bottom end of the Western Conference standings.
There is a strange optic about this series. At first glance, the Canucks would appear to be prohibitive favorites with the NHL's points leader, Henrik Sedin (112 points), leading a deep, balanced offense and netminder Roberto Luongo holding the fort. Yet the Kings finished just three points behind the Canucks with 101, marking the first time they reached the 100-point plateau since 1990-91.
1. Who will carry the mail? The Kings and the Canucks are led by dynamic players, Art Ross Trophy winner Henrik Sedin in Vancouver and Anze Kopitar in Los Angeles. But while the Canucks boast significant secondary scoring with six players who have 25 or more goals, the Kings' depth is more theoretical than actual at this stage. From Kopitar's 81 points at the top of the Kings' scoring list, it's a 25-point drop off to the next forward, captain Dustin Brown. But the Kings boast three other 20-goals scorers (Brown, Smyth and Michal Handzus), while Alexander Frolov had 19 and three others, including sophomore defenseman Drew Doughty, had 16. So there is balance buried in the Kings' lineup. Now it just needs to bloom.
2. A case for the defense: The Canucks will hit the postseason with more than a few question marks about who is going to move the puck up to that talented brigade of forwards while keeping the Kings' forwards at bay. Veteran Willie Mitchell (concussion) isn't expected to be available and injury-prone Sami Salo, who has moved into a shut-down role for the Canucks, was hurt in practice prior to the Canucks' last regular-season game. He should be back for the series opener, but it's still another question mark on an already questionable blue line.
Kevin Bieksa played in only 55 games thanks to a deeply lacerated leg and will be counted on to log heavy minutes. Shane O'Brien, recently suspended for disciplinary reasons by the team, injured his shoulder late in the regular season, although he's expected to be available.
3. Are you experienced? The perception is the Kings will be the wet-behind-the-ears kids facing the worldly Canucks. Not so fast. Credit Los Angeles GM Dean Lombardi with carefully dropping in some worldly characters of his own over the past couple of seasons. There's Smyth, a warrior's warrior to be sure who plays mostly with Kopitar. There's Williams, who won a Cup in Carolina when his Canes beat Smyth's Edmonton Oilers in the 2006 Cup finals.
Scuderi, paired with Doughty, was a big part of Pittsburgh's Cup run last spring. Fredrik Modin, provided he can stay healthy, once helped the Tampa Bay Lightning to a Cup in 2004 and is part of a solid third line with Wayne Simmonds and veteran Handzus. Veteran defenseman Sean O'Donnell was also part of the Ducks' Cup-winning team in Anaheim just three years ago. If the Kings can't get the job done against Vancouver, don't blame it on inexperience.
4. Louie, Louie: Yes, we know Luongo has the tools to be one of the game's finest goalies. But does he have the head for it? He couldn't close the deal last postseason against Chicago, melting like a popsicle on a July day in Game 6 of the second round. This year, even after he came on to lead Canada to a gold medal at the Olympics, the doubts persisted about Luongo's mental toughness. Even Luongo talked about the pressures after the Olympics and he followed that up by winning just three times in his past eight starts. Can he stand on his head if need be against the Kings? Sure. Could he fall apart like a cheap suit? Well, yeah.
5. Quickly now: Goaltending questions are not the particular domain of the Vancouver Canucks. Jonathan Quick, the Kings' young netminder, has endured his own struggles. The third goaltender for the U.S. Olympic team in Vancouver, Quick was winless in his final eight appearances, stalling at 39 victories and causing more than a little consternation within the dressing room. The 24-year-old has not won a game since March 22.
Backup Erik Ersberg got the win for the Kings on the final day of the regular season and prospect Jonathan Bernier turned in a pair of strong performances on an emergency recall basis earlier this month when Ersberg was injured. Look for Quick to get a shot to prove he's still "the man" in Los Angeles, but don't be surprised to see Ersberg come on in relief if Quick, 24, can't get his act together.
• Doughty-Scuderi versus Canucks' trio: Look for Doughty and Scuderi to see an awful lot of the Canucks' potent trio of Henrik and Daniel Sedin and Alexandre Burrows. That may seem like a lot to put on the shoulders of a second-year player, but anyone who saw Doughty take on a man-sized role at the Olympics for Canada understands the kid is a rock.
As for Scuderi, the rock-solid defenseman was on the ice for crucial minutes throughout the playoffs last season, including nail-biting times in Games 6 and 7 of the Cup finals, both of which were won by Scuderi's old team, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
• Vancouver: Daniel Sedin has a 10-game points streak (10 goals, six assists). After enjoying a terrific Olympic tournament playing for his native Slovakia, Pavol Demitra has managed just two goals in 17 post-Olympic games.
• Los Angeles: Kings captain Brown has six points in his past four games and 10 in his past six, skating mostly with Frolov and Jarret Stoll. Since returning from a broken leg, Williams has just two goals in 16 games, even though he has been playing with Kopitar and Smyth on the team's top line.
• We're not exactly sure which goaltender might be in the crease, but what the heck. We're going with the Kings to post what would be a pretty impressive upset in their first trip to the postseason since 2002. Surprising depth up front and a better back end will be just enough to get the Kings through to the second round and produce another summer of self-loathing in Vancouver. Kings in seven games.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.