By Allan Muir
Both the Blackhawks and Kings are coming off tough, seven-game series wins, but each team rolls into the Western Conference Finals on a different high.
Rolling through the regular season left one question unanswered about the Hawks: How would they handle adversity? They got their first taste courtesy of Detroit, which took advantage of some sloppy defensive play to grab a 3-1 series lead. But Chicago proved plenty resilient, running off three straight wins, including the clincher in overtime, to advance. They probably feel better about themselves now as a team than they did during their record-breaking streak to start the season.
The Kings, on the other hand, got here after holding serve against a surprisingly game San Jose squad. They proved they could hold it together while playing under the constant pressure of one-goal hockey, and that they are incredibly tough to beat at home. But they’ve yet to answer their own big question. After dominating on the road last spring, the Kings are 1-5 away from Staples Center and have scored just eight goals in those six games. If they’re going to advance, Los Angeles has to win at least one game in Chicago, where the Blackhawks are 12-1-2 in their past 15 games.
Jan. 19: Blackhawks 5, Kings 2
Feb. 17: Blackhawks 3, Kings 2
March 25: Kings 5, Blackhawks 4
Kings: C Jarrett Stoll (undisclosed, day-to-day)
Everyone knows how miserable it is to play against L.A.’s deep and experienced forwards. They’re ape-strong and relentless on the forecheck, pounding defenders until they decide it’s best to leave their fight at home. But there’s one thing they’re not very good at: scoring. Funny how that’s a problem, eh? As a group, they’ve combined for just 20 goals through 13 playoff games. That’s gotten them this far, but you have to believe they need to be a bit more productive if they’re going to get by the Hawks. The pressure’s squarely on Dustin Brown (three goals), Anze Kopitar and Mike Richards (two apiece) to break out of their slumps while they’re shutting down Chicago’s explosive offense.
Well, potentially explosive. While the Kings have long had to scratch and claw for goals, lighting the lamp is usually a lot easier for Chicago than it has been to this point. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane combined for 46 goals during the regular season, but have three goals between them through two rounds. Toews has been involved for the most part, but Kane was rarely a factor against the Red Wings. He offered up a couple of dazzling moves, but never got close enough to Jimmy Howard to be a threat. Still, both are due to break out at some point, adding to a deep, dangerous group that also has some flexibility. Patrick Sharp came on late in the Detroit series and now is tied for the playoff lead with seven goals. Marian Hossa has skated with multiple linemates, but has been a steady producer.
Keep an eye on the newly constructed fourth line of Viktor Stalberg, Andrew Shaw and Brandon Saad. Their speed and physicality wore down Detroit’s defense in Games 6 and 7. They may be the one line that can out-King the Kings.
Jonathan Quick may be basking in the glory (more on him in a moment), but much like Florence, he’d be nowhere without the defensive machine in front of him. The beauty of the Kings blueline isn’t just its depth — arguably the best in the league — but the construct. Each pairing has a puck-mover combined with a stay-at-home guy, so each tandem is reliable in its own end and solid in transition. Drew Doughty and Robyn Regehr will do the heavy lifting, but the Slava Voynov-Rob Scuderi combo could be the gamebreaker. If they can quiet Hossa and Kane, the Hawks will be hard-pressed to pull this off.
Now that Brent Seabrook has recovered his edge and is back with old partner Duncan Keith, the Hawks boast a top pair that’s as good as any in the league, but Chicago can’t match the depth of the Kings. Nick Leddy, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Michal Rozsival and Johnny Oduya are mobile and, for the most part, can move the puck in a way that facilitates the Blackhawks’ speed through the neutral zone. But all four of them struggled at times with Detroit’s forecheck, which is a shadow of what the Kings are about to bring. They need to remain cool under fire to prevent L.A. from generating turnovers and scoring chances off of bad decisions.
A year ago, Corey Crawford wore the goat horns after several soft goals submarined Chicago’s season. This year, he might be the second-best goalie in the playoffs. After coughing up a brutal goal on the first shot he faced against the Minnesota Wild in the opening round, Crawford has ranged anywhere from solid to spectacular, as he was in Game 7 against Detroit. He’s improved on his regular season numbers, posting a 1.70 GAA and a .938 save percentage.
Problem is, he’s up against the best goalie in the playoffs. Quick has become Hasek-like, not so much in style, but in terms of that aura of unbeatability. It feels like it’s going to take a perfect shot to slip one past him, and that gets into the head of shooters who start overthinking when the puck is on their stick … and that plays right into his hands. Last year’s Conn Smythe winner is the early favorite to repeat with his league-leading 1.50 GAA, .948 save percentage, and three shutouts.
That said, he has to find a way to beat a team that’s bedeviled him his whole career. Quick is 6-11-1 lifetime against the Hawks, with a 2.63 GAA and a .915 save percentage, but that’s regular season J.Q. He’s operating on a different frequency during the playoffs.
If the Kings are hoping to snap out of their scoring woes with the help of their power play, here’s a warning: There’s very little fruit down that path. Chicago has allowed just one goal in 41 shorthanded situations during the playoffs. The Hawks killed 30 straight before allowing a man-advantage goal to the Red Wings in Game 4, and have polished off 10 straight since. Crawford’s played a big part, but so have speedy forwards Michal Frolik and Marcus Kruger. It’s a fast, diligent group that adjusts well to the adjustments of the opposition, and it’s been critical to Chicago’s success so far. Too bad the power play can’t match that kind of performance. The Hawks have the worst PP of any team still standing, scoring just six times on 37 chances, but they may find the cure when matched up against an L.A. penalty kill that’s been great at home (94.7 percent), but porous on the road (79.2). Exploit that in Games 1 and 2 and Chicago’s in great shape.
Both Joel Quenneville and Darryl Sutter rank among the game’s best. Sutter might be slightly better at making in-game adjustments, but Quenneville might have a secret weapon in assistant Jamie Kompon, who was let go by the Kings shortly after they won the Cup. Video shows plenty these days, but having someone on hand who understands what film can’t capture — the psychology and motivations of the Kings’ players — could be invaluable.
Kings in six: There are plenty of reasons to believe in the Blackhawks, not the least of which is their spectacular regular season that saw virtually every player on the team make a significant contribution along the way. That’s the sort of depth that pays dividends during a long playoff run. So does the confidence that comes from having just clawed their way back from a 3-1 series deficit against Detroit. But I’m a firm believer that a hot goalie trumps all at this time of year. So while the Kings may struggle to score, Quick gives them the chance to steal games they have no right winning. Look for him to swipe one of the first two in Chicago to set up a clincher at Staples in Game 6.