Western Conference Finals Preview: Hawks-Kings
No team in NHL history had ever gone 24 consecutive games without losing in regulation… until this season. Only 20 times in NHL history, in 229 chances, no less, had a team come back from a 3-1 defecit to win a playoff series… until this season. The Chicago Blackhawks have now imprinted their name in the record books not once, but twice in the past two and a half months, yet the season as a whole doesn’t feel completely accomplished – not yet at least. There is still one minor milestone to check off on this memorable 2013 season – a second Stanley Cup in four years, and it’s officially in reach. The reigning champion Los Angeles Kings have yet to be dethroned, and as big of a challenge as the Red Wings posed these past two weeks, the Kings will make life for our Hawks that much more difficult. Get ready for one of the most exciting, gut-wrenching and emotional playoff series you will ever witness between two of the best teams in all of hockey. The Kings aren’t ready to give up the crown just yet, but the Blackhawks will do everything in their power to scalp them if need be.
It was only one short year ago that the Kings claimed the throne, for the first time ever, in purely dominant fashion. They set a NHL record by winning 10 consecutive games on the road in one playoff tournament and cruised to a 16-4 postseason record, something completely unheralded for an eighth seed. This year? They’re off to a 1-5 start on the road so far. If they’re going to have a chance to beat Chicago, they damn well better steal one in the Madhouse this weekend… and it all starts with something easier than done in these high-octane playoff series: scoring goals.
The Patrick Kane/Jonathan Toews/Marian Hossa ménage à trois has combined for a pedestrian eight goals in 12 playoff games thus far (five from Hossa), while the Dustin Brown/Jeff Carter/Mike Richards ménage has combined for 10 goals in 13 games. These two teams are loaded with star power, and the numbers above are more of a testament to the unique depth and underratedness of their respective rosters than a knock on any of their top players. Patrick Sharp may have disappeared throughout most of the Detroit series, but he came through when it mattered most by scoring a huge goal in Game 7 to get us off the schneid. Brian Bickell (goals in Games 5 and 6), Michael Frolik (penalty shot in Game 6) and Andrew Shaw (two goals in Game 5) all also played monstrous roles in helping Chicago complete the three-game closeout. And although Kane and Toews have struggled to put the puck through the net, they’ve contributed positively (for the most part) in other ways, if not through timely passing (15 combined assists in the postseason), then by just simply being out on the ice (both lead Chicago non-defensemen in TOI/G). You’ve gotta believe that they’ll pick it up soon. Like, real soon. They’re too good not to.
As for LA, they’re not nearly as deep as Chicago, but they have great experience and great leadership. Brown and Carter are fantastic – Brown being the captain of the ship and Carter being the team’s bona-fide goal scorer, as he finished fourth in the NHL in goals scored this season (26). Both Carter and Richards played on the 2010 Philadelphia Flyers team that lost to Chicago in the Stanley Cup, and both got totally shut down, combining for four total points and a -13 +/- rating in that series. Needless to say, those two will be out for blood come Saturday. Brown and fellow wing, Dustin Penner, will surely enter the series with similar mentalities, as they both enjoy physical styles of hockey and lead the team in hits (57 and 38, respectively).
Two other names to know: Anze Kopitar and potential x-factor Justin Williams. Kopitar led the Kings in points during the regular season with 42, and Williams, who scored just 11 goals all season, scored two big ones in Game 7 against San Jose.
Drew Doughty vs. Duncan Keith – that’s the main story-line here. After manning the blue line for Team Canada together in the 2010 Olympics, they come in as two of the premiere defensemen in the league. As expected, they lead their respective teams in ice time per game, something that will surely not change during the conference finals. Keith’s nine points ranks him fourth this postseason, and Doughty’s 24 blocked shots ranks him ninth, right behind LA’s own Rob Scuderi (31 BS) and right in front of Chicago’s Johnny Oduya (23 BS). As ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun put it, “…the game plan from each team will include targeting each star blueliner: pound them every time you have a chance on the forecheck, and wear them down as much as possible.” That’s how important these two are to their teams. If Brent Seabrook can just pick up where he left off after that overtime goal to clinch a trip to the conference finals, then advantage: Chicago.
Not much needs to be said here. If you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, then it’s time to move the f**k out, because the enigma that is Jonathan Quick has taken his giant wooden goalie stick and shoved it up the asses of the past six playoff opponents he has faced. We can talk all we want about offense, defense, special teams, etc., but when it comes to playing the Kings, none of that has seemed to matter whatsoever. Quick has stopped 362 of 382 shots this postseason for a .948 save percentage – somehow better than the .946 he posted last year en route to the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. He’s inexplicably unstoppable at this time of the year (he ranked 34th in the regular season in save percentage) and, quite frankly, it’s downright scary. Expect the Hawks to crash the net every chance they get and put a big body directly in front of Quick whenever the puck is in the LA zone. It almost worked for San Jose; I’d like to think it’ll be more effective for Chicago.
Corey Crawford has been pretty unbelievable too, saving 316 out of 337 shots, good for a .938 save percentage and ranking second amongst full-time goaltenders. Fans tend to be hard on him at times because he may allow a soft goal here or there, but after the way he has played all season long and his performances in three elimination games (saved 25 of 26 shots in Game 5; 35 of 38 shots in Game 6; 26 of 27 in Game 7), it’s time for everyone to believe in him.
Nothing has changed since my last series preview: the Hawks’ power play sucks, and their penalty kill does not. To be fair, they did convert three power plays into goals during Games 5 and 6 against Detroit, but for the most part, it wasn’t pretty. There were times that the Hawks struggled to even get one shot on goal due to their inability to either win a face-off (something they struggled to do in Detroit’s zone for most of the series, not just on power plays) or set up their four corners, allowing Detroit to clear the puck whenever they got a stick on it. It was borderline embarrassing to watch at times, but as always, they came through when it mattered. That being said, their power play ranks last amongst the remaining teams (and 10th overall) at 16.2% (6-for-37), something that must be improved upon in order to win this upcoming series. LA’s PK unit has been very solid, killing 86.7% of all power plays this postseason (6-for-43) and ranking fifth amongst all playoff contenders. Given those numbers, plus a goaltender like Jonathan Quick camping out between the pipes, I don’t like our chances for improvement.
Thank god for the Chicago penalty kill, though – the deadliest in hockey. The PK unit has given up one – I repeat: ONE – shorthanded goal out of 41 tries in the playoffs thus far. That’s good for 97.6% which is, if you think about it, just absolutely ridiculous. Detroit was able to convert only one power play out of 24 last series. If that greatness can continue, then hopefully a phenomenal PK unit can offset a weak PP unit. Statistically, LA’s power play unit has been very similar to Detroit’s all season (19.9% to Detroit’s 18.4% during regular season). Because of that, I expect the PK greatness to, indeed, continue.
Chile please. Hawks in 7.
Posted on May 31, 2013, in Blackhawks and tagged andrew shaw, brian bickell, corey crawford, duncan keith, dustin brown, jeff carter, jonathan quick, jonathan toews, los angeles kings, michael frolik, mike richards, Patrick Kane, penalty kill, power play. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.