Western Conference Final preview: Blackhawks vs. Kings
Could the Stanley Cup Conference Final round have turned out any better? The NHL could not have dreamed that after the lockout-shortened season that the Final Four would be Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh.
In the West, it comes down to the reigning Stanley Cup champs, the Los Angeles Kings, and this year's Presidents' Trophy winner, the Chicago Blackhawks. The two teams have very distinct personalities, and the series has all the ingredients for an epic series.
Storylines? Check - on both ends of the ice.
Both teams want to prove a point - check. The Kings hope to become the first repeat Cup winners since the Red Wings last did it fifteen years ago. Chicago has been "recovering" from the post-Cup-roster-purge for two seasons now, and they won the Presidents' Trophy - anything less than the Stanley Cup Final would be an unacceptable ending to the season.
Teams are pretty well-matched? Check. Although their styles are quite different - Chicago kills with speed and elite skill, while the Kings do it with a punishing forecheck and size - they compliment each other well to provide entertaining hockey.
The Kings will want to make it hard on the Blackhawks, and they'll do it by hitting and finishing checks. Of the four remaining teams, Los Angeles leads this stat by a large gap: 237 hits recorded so far. Boston has 202, Pittsburgh 144, and Chicago just 83. They also play a dump-and-chase style, which can potentially work against them with the Blackhawks' fast, puck-moving defensemen.
Los Angeles' top two lines have put out most of their production; if they hope to get past the Blackhawks, their other two lines will have to chip in regularly, too. Of the four teams remaining, the Kings had the fewest goals, with 26 (avg 2/game).
For the Kings, however, their top player is their goalie, Jonathan Quick. His gaudy .948 sv% and 1.50 GAA lead the league in the post season; and he can definitely steal games for the team. During his three shutouts so far this season, the Kings were outshot 89-70. By clogging up the crease and aggressively going to the net, the Blackhawks can take away some of his game. Quick plays an aggressive goalie style: he plays further out of the net in order to cut down angles, and likes to play the puck -- but he also has the fast glove, side-to-side speed, agility, and flexibility to make huge, impossible-seeming saves.
On the Blackhawks' end of the ice, their series against Detroit was hopefully the wake-up call that they needed. After sailing through the regular season without too much difficulty, Chicago didn't have too hard of a time dispatching Minnesota in the first round despite uneven play. However, the Red Wings figured out how to shut down Chicago's production - at least for three games. Once the Blackhawks stopped allowing themselves to be pushed around by Detroit, and Coach Quenneville made some tweaks to the lines, Chicago owned the rest of the series. They averaged four goals/game against the Kings in the regular season; can they do the same in this series?
Corey Crawford has proven himself to be a rock for Chicago. His .938 sv% and 1.70 GAA is second only to Quick. Crawford's regular-season stats (.926 sv%/1.94/3 shutouts) were actually better than Quick's (.902 sv%/2.45 GAA/1 shutout). The Blackhawks will rely on him elevating his game and once again being better than Quick.
Of special importance to the Blackhawks will be continuing their outstanding penalty kill - and staying out of the box as much as they can. The Kings scored 27% (7 of 26) of their playoff goals while on the power play. So far, Chicago has killed of 97.6% of their PKs, allowing just one goal in 41 times shorthanded. The Blackhawks know they will have their best scoring opportunities against Quick by getting their noses dirty in front of the net - nowhere will this be more important than on power play opportunities.
There is one small intangible that may favor the Blackhawks early. In a modern playoff rarity, the Blackhawks and Kings will play their first two games back-to-back on Saturday and Sunday, due to the scheduling of Rolling Stones concerts at the United Center. Quenneville has an outstanding record in winning the second half of back-to-back games. The Blackhawks played 12 back-to-back games this season & went 10-1-1 in the second games; the Kings had just 8, and went 5-2-1 in the second games. In seven of those twelve back-to-backs, the Blackhawks had to change cities inbetween games. Their worst stretch was a Friday night game in San Jose, a Sunday game in Columbus, and a Monday game in Edmonton - all of which they won.
Both teams should be bringing their top game every night in this series, which promises to make for a thrilling set of games for fans.