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Kings stronger than Coyotes outside crease

Vancouver made sense after it reached the Stanley Cup finals last year and had the same team basically intact. St. Louis entered the playoffs with two terrific goalies playing behind impenetrable defense. Nashville was built for a long run. Detroit and Chicago were experienced. San Jose was due.

An argument could have been made for any of the aforementioned teams to reach the Western Conference finals. OK, who picked Phoenix and Los Angeles?

History alone would have been enough to scare off most prognosticators when the playoffs began. The Coyotes hadn't won a playoff series in franchise history, including their days in Winnipeg. The Kings had won one since Wayne Gretzky led them to a finals loss to Montreal back with Barry Melrose, and his mullet, behind the bench.

The two Pacific Division rivals will meet in the conference finals starting today for the same basic reason: goaltending. Kings netminder Jonathan Quick would likely win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the postseason if the voting were held today. However, Coyotes goalie Mike Smith wouldn't be far behind.

"It has been a heck of a ride," Smith said after the 'Yotes eliminated Nashville. "You don't make the playoffs every season, and you certainly don't make the conference finals every year."

Phoenix and Los Angeles were separated by five spots in the conference standings but only two points overall. The Desert Dogs won their last five games of the regular season and the division to finish third in the conference. The Kings lost their final two games in a shootout and overtime and finished eighth but suddenly look like the team to beat in the final four.

Quick and Smith have distinctly different styles that were equally effective during the regular season. Quick is smaller but more athletic than Smith, who moves less but covers more net. Nobody should be surprised if each game is decided by a goal or if the two teams combined to score the fewest goals in a series.

"It's fun to still be playing hockey this time of year," Quick said told reporters in Los Angeles last week. "I think this is the deepest I've ever gone into the spring, so it's great. We want to keep going."

The two goalies' playoff stats are staggering. Quick has an 8-1 record with a 1.55 goals-against average and a .949 save percentage while Smith has an 8-3 mark with a 1.77 GAA and .948 save percentage after two rounds.

Here's another staggering figure: $3.8 million. That's how much Quick and Smith counted against the salary cap combined.

Quick made a measly $1.8 million this year with 35-21-13 record, a 1.95 GAA and a .929 save percentage. He's a finalist for the Vezina Trophy. Smith was right there with him during the regular season while posting a 38-18-10 record with a 2.21 GAA and a .930 save percentage while earning $2 million.

Fourteen goalies counted for $3.8 million or more. Four of the five goalies with the highest cap numbers -- Carolina's Cam Ward, Buffalo's Ryan Miller, Minnesota's Niklas Backstrom and Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff -- failed to make the playoffs. Vezina finalist Henrik Lunqvist had the highest at $6.875 million.

Here's a closer look at Phoenix and L.A.:

*Coyotes update: Phoenix beat Chicago in six games and Nashville in five. The 'Yotes are getting enough scoring from different players to survive. Big bodies Martin Hanzal and former Sabres winger Taylor Pyatt, for example, combined for 17 goals during the regular season before netting six goals, including three winners, in the first two series. They've helped take pressure off top players such as Radim Vrbata, who mostly has been held in check. Phoenix has scored the first goal seven times in 11 games, winning six, and is comfortable settling into a defensive system with the lead. The Coyotes have averaged the fewest shots on goal (26.8) while giving up the most (36.4) but survived because Smith has played so well. They'll need to create more against Quick if they're going to have a chance at winning the series.

*Kings update: Los Angeles beat Vancouver in five games and swept St. Louis, knocking down giants with relative ease. The Kings finally have found their scoring touch after struggling in that department all year. They're averaging three goals per game after scoring only 2.29 goals, second-fewest in the NHL, during the regular season. They've scored four short-handed goals while allowing only three power-play goals. It's good because their power play is 4 for 47 in the nine games. Dustin Brown could be the most valuable forward still playing. Dustin Penner (6-foot-4, 242) is using his size and saving his best hockey for the playoffs. If they can get Mike Richards and Jeff Carter going offensively, they're going to be tough to beat. Quick has allowed more than two goals only once and faced more than 30 shots only twice.

*Outlook: Los Angeles looks better across the board. Take the Kings in six games.