GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Wayne Gretzky gave hockey in Los Angeles a significant boost in his eight seasons with the Kings, providing them with some cache in an overloaded market while boosting attendance and interest all the way down to the youth level.
He had a similar impact as owner and later coach of the Phoenix Coyotes, though to a different extent and without nearly as much success.
Thriving long after Gretzky was gone, the Kings and Coyotes are still reaping the benefits of the Great One's influence as they get ready to start the Western Conference finals Sunday night in the desert.
"His imprint is certainly on both teams," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. "Both teams should be grateful for the imprint that he's left on them."
Just don't expect any carry-over affection between these teams.
Bottom line is, they just don't like each other.
As Pacific Division rivals, the Kings and Coyotes play each other six times a season, enough build up animosity, from an entire team standpoint down to individual battles.
The games are always physical and the ones this season were particularly brutal, featuring high sticks and hooks, questionable hits, plenty of face washing and nearly as many fights as goals.
The Coyotes' 1-0 victory Feb. 16 in Los Angeles featured four brawls, including three in the first period and one between captains Shane Doan and Dustin Brown after Brown knocked Coyotes defenseman Rusty Klesla out the game with a hard hit. Five days later, Kings winger Kyle Clifford received a game misconduct for a shot to Phoenix center Gilbert Brule's head.
With the teams facing each other in the playoffs for the first time and a trip to the Stanley Cup finals on the line, things could really get testy.
"We've had some pretty intense, physical games already," Doan said. "I'm assuming that it's just going to kind of go up even more than that."
The series will feature two teams few expected to still be around this late in the season.
One of the NHL's worst-scoring teams early in the season, the Kings cost coach Terry Murray his job on Dec. 20. He was replaced by Darryl Sutter and though the scoring picked up a little, Los Angeles still had to rely heavily on goalie Jonathan Quick and ended up being the last team to make the playoffs in the West after Phoenix made a run to take the division title.
The Kings were underdogs in each of their first two playoff series, yet didn't seem to be fazed. Los Angeles ran past Vancouver in the opening round and swept St. Louis out of the second to reach the Western Conference finals for the first time since 1993, when Gretzky led them to the Stanley Cup finals against Montreal. Los Angeles is the first No. 8 seed to knock off Nos. 1 and 2 in the same playoffs, and has an eye on No. 3, the Coyotes.
"A lot of trials and tribulations for this team this year," Brown said. "It hasn't been an easy year for us to go through a coaching change, we had some losing streaks, we were fighting for a playoff spot pretty much the whole season. It just kind of all came together."
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