2014 NHL Playoffs: Blackhawks-Kings Western Conference finals preview
Keys to a Blackhawks victory
Corey Crawford was the difference for Chicago against Minnesota, stealing the clinching Game 6 to bring his postseason GAA to 1.97 and his save percentage to .931. His lack of pedigree, despite winning the Stanley Cup last year, means he'll always have his doubters, but there's simply no logic backing them up anymore. Let's just recognize him as one the best in the game now, shall we?
Chicago's defense is not just the league's deepest but it's battle-tested and, outside of Niklas Hjalmarsson's scratchy voice that resulted when he was hit in the throat while blocking a shot against the Wild, fully healthy. The top pair of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook is tougher and more experienced than any the Kings have faced this postseason. They are the backbone of a penalty kill that's humming along at a league-leading rate of 91.3 percent.
The Blackhawks' offense has nowhere near the depth it boasted in 2010, and still struggles with the same problem it had in 2013: the lack of a legitimate second-line center. But their best players have been outstanding, with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane already combining for seven game-winning goals. Marian Hossa (a team-leading 2-9-11, including nine points against the Wild) is quietly building his case for a spot in the Hall of Fame. The expected return of Andrew Shaw in this round will add a much needed coat of sandpaper. He and Bryan Bickell (team-best six goals so far after scoring just 11 in the regular season) have to get into Jonathan Quick's kitchen early and often.
Keys to a Kings victory
Quick, the 2012 winner, has had his ups and downs in these playoffs but has shown he can rise to the occasion by posting a .957 save percentage while backstopping the team to six straight elimination game victories. The key for the keeper will be maintaining that level of urgency from the outset so the Kings don't put themselves in position to need another come-from-behind series win.
Doughty has been all-world in these playoffs, approaching the level of 200-foot dominance he displayed in Sochi with Team Canada. He keys the Kings' offense with his puck poise and playmaking in transition, but it'll be his ability to shut down Chicago's top line that L.A. relies on most. The Kings got strong support efforts from fill-ins Jeff Schultz and Matt Greene in Games 6 and 7, but they were a disaster in Games 3-5, especially on the penalty kill. They have to provide simple but effective minutes in relief until Mitchell and possibly Regehr return later in the series.
The Kings ranked 26th in the league in offense during the regular season, averaging just 2.42 goals per game. So what has them jacked up to 3.21 for the postseason, second only to the Canadiens? Kopitar in beast mode, for one. It's been night after night of three-zone dominance for the Slovenian superstar. Better balance, for another. With the deadline acquisition of Marian Gaborik, who leads the playoffs with nine goals, and the playoff arrivals of Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli, Darryl Sutter can ice three lines capable of consistently producing. That depth, and their track record for dominating down low, makes them a formidable challenge for Chicago's D.
Kings in 7. I can't craft a logical argument against the defending champs, so I just have to rely on my gut. It comes down to two things. First, concern over Chicago's inability to adjust to Minnesota's game in last round. The Wild set the tone and dominated that series for long stretches. The Hawks won on brief outbursts of excellence rather than be establishing themselves as the superior team. They won't beat the Kings like that. Second, a strong belief in Quick. Consider how he shut the opposition down when it mattered most--he allowed just two goals in the last three games against San Jose and three in the final two games to Anaheim. If he finds that intensity early in the series, L.A. will have the edge it needs.
(All times Eastern; * if necessary)
Game 1: Los Angeles at Chicago, Sunday, May 18. 3 p.m. ET (NBC, TSN, RDS)
Game 2: Los Angeles at Chicago, Wednesday, May 21 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN, TSN, RDS)
Game 3: Chicago at Los Angeles, Saturday, May 24, 8 p.m. ET (NBC, CBC, RDS)
Game 4: Chicago at Los Angeles, Monday, May 26, 9 p.m. ET (NBCSN, TSN, RDS)
Game 5: Los Angeles at Chicago, Wednesday, May 28, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN, CBC, RDS)
Game 6: Chicago at Los Angeles, Friday, May 30, 9 p.m. ET (NBCSN, CBC, RDS)Game 7: Los Angeles at Chicago, Sunday, June 1, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN, CBC, RDS)