By Sidney Brown, WARR contributor
Nothing has come easy for either the Chicago Blackhawks or the Los Angeles Kings, who each just survived grueling seven game series to enter the Western Conference Finals, but these two teams may stand as the top two teams in the NHL.
Already, we know the Hawks and Kings stand as two of the winners of the Stanley Cup in the last three years (Blackhawks in 2010 and the Kings in 2012), half of what looks to be a Tournament of Champions in the NHL’s final two rounds with the Eastern Conference being decided by the Boston Bruins (2011 Cup Champions) and the Pittsburgh Penguins (’09 Cup Champions).
The theme coming into this series will be can the Hawks’ fast pace and high-powered offense matchup well against the Kings’ physical defensive style and vice versa? Will Corey Crawford match great save after great save with Jonathan Quick? Which power play unit will show up? Can the Kings score enough goals to help out Quick? Will the Kings try to play into the Hawks’ hands offensively? All of these questions will be answered as this series begins this afternoon at the United Center in Chicago. Game 1 of the Hawks and Kings will take place 4 pm central time today and Game 2 Sunday at 7 pm central. Both games can been seen on the NBC Sports Network.
During the regular season, the Hawks took two out of three from the Kings including their opening day victory on January 19th by the score of 5-2, dousing some quality salt on the sweetness of the Kings’ first ever Cup Championship banner raising. The Kings received their rings on that day but the Hawks took advantage of LA’s rust from the start by scoring three first period goals, and Quick struggled throughout (it was later revealed that he had back surgery during the lockout).
On February 25th, the Hawks won a closer game in Chicago by a score of 3-2, continuing what turned out to be their historic 24-game point streak without a regulation loss. The teams’ last matchup on March 25th provided an offensive explosion, helped out by shakey goaltending from Crawford, who gave up a crucial rebound to Kings captain Dustin Brown, who would score the game winner with just under 1:30 left to secure a 5-4 victory. Hawks captain Jonathan Toews led the Hawks in points versus the Kings during the regular season with six while Kings standout goalie Jonathan Quick had his struggles with the Hawks, only managing a save percentage of .857% Who has the edge in experience and overall skill? Let’s take a look at who will come out of this series.
Chicago has the most depth in the league when it comes to scorers and they don’t lack talent with the likes of Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa.
During the latter stages of the Detroit series, the scoring line of Toews, Kane and Sharp provided enough energy and points to hold off the Red Wings. Sharp leads the team with seven goals in the playoffs and even though Kane just has two goals, his offensive push within the last two games of the Detroit series made an impact and it’s only a matter of time before he breaks out of his slump to score goals in bunches. For the Kings, their scoring attack is led by Brown, Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards. Kopitar led the Kings in scoring during the regular season with 42 points (10 goals and 32 assists) but during the playoffs he has struggled so far, just posting up seven points (2 goals and 5 assists).
Captain Brown is a strong leader who can provide some scoring (three goals and an assist in the playoffs) but he can deliver a big hit to energize his team. Hawks fans will remember during the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals, then-Philadelphia Flyers wingers Carter and Richards gave the Hawks problems with their strong forechecking, even though both struggled to score goals. Carter is second on the Kings in playoff scoring with eight points (five goals, three assists) while Richards leads with 10 points (two goals and eight assists). Expect both players to challenge the Hawks’ forwards and defenseman with their physical play to slow them down.
The Hawks third and fourth liners are led by Michael Frolik, Bryan Bickell, Marcus Kruger and Michal Handzus. Bickell must continue his stellar play by being aggressive, getting to the net and distracting Quick — in other words, by scoring dirty goals. After scoring the game-tying goal in Game 6 in Detroit, Handzus’ play has improved and it has shown in his winning the majority of his faceoffs and playing strong defense. The Kings’ third and fourth liners are led by Jordan Nolan, Dustin Penner, Justin Williams and former Hawk Colin Fraser. Williams has been clutch throughout his career in the playoffs and his two goals against the San Jose Sharks in Game 7 were huge in closing out that series in their favor, it also ended an eight game goal drought for him. Overall, the Kings’ forwards have scored 20 goals in the playoffs, with Williams tallying four goals.
The Hawks are led by their top pair of Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith, who will be asked to shut down the top scoring line of the Kings. Ever since being paired together in Game 5 of the Detroit series, Seabrook has responded by playing physical and his game-winner in Game 7 to knockout the Red Wings should give him more confidence going forward.
Nick Leddy, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Johnny Oduya and Michal Rosival must continue their strong defensive play in front of Crawford. This group was all key in the comeback series win against Detroit. The Kings are led by a group of young defensemen topped by Drew Doughty and Slava Voynov, Doughty is the Kings version of Duncan Keith — an offensive defenseman who can lay out a big hit to keep the opposition’s top scoring line in check. Doughty only has five points so far this postseason (two goals and three assists) but Voynov has been clutch, picking up seven points including four goals, two being game winners against St. Louis and San Jose. The other LA defensemen — Robyn Regehr, Rob Scuderi, Matt Greene, Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez must help out Quick by not allowing rebounds and clearing the puck out of the traffic area.
Quick, last year’s Conn Smythe winner, started out slow in the opening round against St. Louis, but since then his numbers have improved and he’s back on top of his game. Quick has an 8-5 postseason record in 2013 with an .948% save percentage and a 1.50 goals against average to go with eight shutouts. On the other side, Crawford has been outstanding, his play, especially in Games 6 and 7 were enough to help eliminate Detroit. Crawford has an 8-4 record with a .938% save percentage and a 1.70 goals against average along with one shutout. The way to beat Quick is to shoot above his shoulders, shooting from both sides and putting bodies in front of him, this formula worked for the Hawks in their two victories during the regular season against the Kings. To beat Crawford a team has to simply shoot the puck to the net and give up rebounds creating second and third chances to score.
The Hawks’ power play has been their achilles heel during the entire year and a 16.2% percent clip won’t get it done. This MUST improve if the Hawks want to have success in this series. The Kings’ power play play is converting at a 20% clip, scoring a total of seven goals thus far in the playoffs. The Hawks penalty kill has been tremendous, leading the NHL in the playoffs with a 97.6% clip, allowing one goal. The Kings penalty kill unit has also been very good with an 86% clip including a shutout streak against San Jose that wound up at 12 for 12.
Hawks fans shouldn’t be surprised at the success that the Kings are having, since their leader is former Hawks coach Darryl Sutter (1993-1995), who has a no-nonsense attitude to the game and has no problem adjusting his lineup during a game.
Ever since Sutter’s taking over in the middle of last season, the intensity of the LA players picked up and that was the reason why the Kings won the Stanley Cup for the first time in their franchise last season. On the other side on the bench, Hawks coach Joel Quenneville can be credited with making major changes to his lineup during their comeback series win against Detroit. With the changes, the Hawks haven’t missed a beat, and whatever isn’t working for a game or two, coach Q will make the proper adjustments. Also, coach Q will send messages to his playoffs if they’re not playing up to their capabilities by cutting their ice time. For example, Seabrook being benched during Game 5 in Detroit after being paired with Keith. Seabrook responded eventually with his series-clinching goal.
Both teams are eight games away now from winning the Stanley Cup. The question now is who will get to four victories to advance to the Finals? Can the Kings use the same formula that Detroit did, which pushed the Hawks to the brink of elimination? Will the Chicago offense open up for Kane, Toews and Hossa? Can Crawford and or Quick stand on their heads for a whole series? As the answers reveal themselves, this Western Conference Final series should be a dandy. If the Hawks can maintain their momentum from the Detroit series, they should have success in controlling the defending champs. I expect this series to be great one and a long one to test the Hawks mettle.
My prediction: Hawks in six.
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