By Allan Muir
The Chicago Blackhawks better hope that the Los Angeles Kings distanced themselves from hockey last night. Maybe they caught Godzilla at the movies or had a nice dinner with the wife and kids. Anything...as long as they didn't watch the Rangers end Montreal's season.
Because if they did, the Kings were handed the blueprint for knocking out the Hawks in Game 6 in Los Angeles (9 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS).
The Blueshirts squandered their first chance to eliminate the Habs with a wildly dysfunctional effort on the road in Game 5. They took too many penalties, blew too many coverages and lacked the cohesion that marked their first three wins in the series.
Now rewind the previous night when the Kings, despite extending the clock into a second overtime, were all kinds of lousy in their Game 5 loss in Chicago. A team that prides itself on structure looked more like a bunch of guys trying to work out the kinks in a September exhibition match. Haphazard passing, missed assignments, poor puck management, too many penalties...
Both New York and Los Angeles lost close-out opportunities because they got away from what worked for them earlier on in their series. But the Rangers were able to rebound and eliminate the Habs on Thursday night for one reason: New York deviated from what had worked earlier in the Eastern final.
The Rangers had used their speed and puck possession game to wear down the Canadiens. But when they needed the knockout punch, they abandoned that plan and went to the dump-and-chase.
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It made sense. Montreal coach Michel Therrien had little faith in his rookie defenseman Nathan Beaulieu, and that put considerable pressure on his top-four, particularly P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov. You could see the strain of the workload in their heavy legs as the series progressed. So Rangers' bench boss Alain Vigneault decided to test that weakness in Game 6 by forcing Montreal's defenders to go deep into their own zone and retrieve pucks over and over.
It worked. The extra skating--and the heavy pounding they took in the process--cut the Canadiens' transition game off at the knees and was a big reason why they were limited to just five shots in both the first and third periods when they most needed an offensive push.
The Hawks boast too many weapons to be held to five shots, especially now that they've found some second line mojo with Patrick Kane, Andrew Shaw and Brandon Saad. But we've already seen that their defense is showing signs of stress. Nick Leddy has been reduced to spot duty and Brent Seabrook, who scored but was -1 in Game 5, has been largely ineffective. (Don't be surprised when his playoffs are finally finished to learn that he's been nursing an injury.) That's led to heavy minutes for Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson, in particular.
The group was better in staving off elimination in Game 5, but still were sloppy with the puck (accounting for more giveaways--nine--than the entire Kings team) and allowed too many good looks at goalie Corey Crawford.
Much like the Habs' defense, the Hawks' blueline corps typically excels at moving the puck. But you can see the weight of two long playoff runs (plus a heavy Olympic workload) in every careless decision, every turnover, every man left alone near the crease.
Chicago's D is its weakest link right now. Force it to work harder to retrieve the puck and widen gaps. That slows the tempo of the game and pulls the Hawks out of their comfort zone.
It's all right there in the blueprint.