Western Conference Finals Preview: Blackhawks vs. Kings
The Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks have only one other postseason series on record, and it was in 1974. The main buildup to this series is that both of these teams have become the big kids of the West very quickly. Since 2009, the Blackhawks have been a perennial contender, after many years of not making the playoffs at all. The next year, they brought home the Cup. Their rise has been swift, and their team is comprised of players who combine a certain scrappiness with pure talent. The Kings are on a similar arc, making the playoffs in 2010 for the first time since 2002 and rising within two seasons to Stanley Cup Champions. The Kings bring a little more toughness and snarl to their team personality, and won their last championship not necessarily with offensive prowess but with pure determination.
At forward, the Blackhawks and Kings are both very different teams. Chicago is simply built to score more. Patrick Sharp is tied for the league lead in postseason goals with 7, but bottom-six forward Bryan Bickell has 5. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane still want to break out and provide some offense for their team more so than they have been lately–however, based on Toews’ postseason record over the years, despite the captain’s scoring touch, it’s evident that coach Joel Quenneville also looks to him to match up well against other teams’ top scorers. Clearly it’s been working out for Toew’s winger, Sharp. The other Blackhawks’ forwards are role-players, more or less, who have nevertheless not failed to impress, such as Michael Frolik on his unexpected penalty shot against Detroit in their game 6. Dave Bolland is also hardworking and known for scoring timely goals.
The Kings forwards are in a different model entirely, favoring size and the “power forward” ideal. Names like Mike Richards, Dustin Penner, Jeff Carter, and Anze Kopitar evoke images of guys working hard and hitting down low, making big moves around the net, and taking deadly snap shots. The line of Dustin Brown, Kopitar, and Justin Williams has been particularly effective at times, but will need to be even more effective against the Blackhawks. Dwight King and Jordan Nolan provide similar size in the bottom six, adding punishing physicality even though they don’t pitch in much offensively. Based on the clear offensive edge that the Hawks hold, the Kings will likely rely on their physicality and size to try to shut the Hawks down, but will still have to take risks to ensure that their offense gets to work, especially their top line.
The offensive advantage remains with the Blackhawks when it comes to their defensemen. They continue to get a ton of great things on both sides of the puck from their blueline, including great playmaking from Duncan Keith and a Game 7 overtime game winner from Brent Seabrook. Johnny Oduya and Nick Leddy provide speed on the rush, while Niklas Hjalmarsson has a combination of physicality and a strong shot. He even almost scored the winning goal in regulation in that Game 7 against Detroit before it was waved off. It doesn’t hurt that the entire Hawks’ blueline can also be tough, hard-hitting defensemen when the situation calls for it. There isn’t a soft option on the roster right now.
The Kings’ d-men are scoring as well, however, including four goals from Slava Voynov. Still, the roster complement on defense is perhaps more physical and positionally sound overall, with a few true stay-at-home defensemen like Rob Scuderi and Matt Greene, whose rare mistakes and smart plays will likely frustrate Chicago’s scorers when working against them one-on-one. Drew Doughty plays nearly 30 minutes a night and will be the guy laying brutal hits at one end of the ice and taking a risk to pinch or join the rush at the other, and will be as hard to defend against as many of the Kings forwards. While the Hawks’ defensemen may pitch in more goals, defensively the two squads seem fairly evenly matched. If the Kings can stay punishing on the back end, they may have the advantage.
These are the two best netminders statistically left in the playoffs, and it shows. Jonathan Quick (1.50 GAA, .948 save percentage) has been unbelievable for the Kings and seems to have returned more closely to the form he was showing during his Conn Smythe performance last season. Corey Crawford’s numbers (1.70 GAA, .938 save percentage) are not quite as good as Quick’s, but the difference is incremental. The battle in net could easily turn the series, depending on who stays hot, and who makes one or two key mistakes. Quick has kept the Kings in series when their offense struggled, and Crawford has made up for defensive breakdowns on the part of the Hawks more than a few times this postseason. Both are stalwart in the cage and will make every goal scored very difficult, if not always dramatic.
This matchup might just be perfect for one of the most exciting series in recent years. Chicago can score at will and the Kings have a punishing two-way game that could potentially bottle them up over long stretches. Both teams had difficulty with their last opponents as well, however, needing seven games to advance. This series could be another seven-gamer to get to the final dance. Ultimately, as long as Chicago keeps up their scoring pace and doesn’t get frustrated by the Kings’ physicality, they will score the goals to prevail. Still, if the Kings get superior goaltending and remain focused, it will remain extremely close.