Top 5 things to watch in the Western Conference final
Marian Gaborik could be the key to get the Kings past the Blackhawks. (USA TODAY SPORTS)
This should be good.
The Los Angeles Kings, into the Western Conference Final for the third time in four years against the Chicago Blackhawks, looking to become the NHL’s first repeat champion in 16 years.
Two hardened playoff warriors squaring off in what most believe is the unofficial Stanley Cup final. No offence, Montreal and New York, but A) You’re from the Eastern Conference, which everyone knows is considerably weaker than the West and B) You’re not even the two best teams in the East.
So there is everything on the line for the Kings and Hawks.
Here are five things to watch for as they get set to deliver another post-season beauty.
STYLES MAKE THE FIGHT
These are two teams from opposite ends of the hockey spectrum. The Kings play a hard gorilla-style game rooted in defence, physicality and structural discipline in all three zones. It’s not like they don’t have elite level talent — Anze Kopitar and Marian Gaborik can finish with anyone and the Kings just hung six goals on Anaheim in Game 7 — but they’d rather grind their opponents into the ice than trade chances.
Chicago, meanwhile, can be a creative and dynamic handful that is quite at home in a track meet. They aren’t one-dimensional, no defending champion ever is, and can handle themselves in an alley, too (ask David Backes), but they can overwhelm an opponent with speed and skill and they know it.
It will be a war of wills. If the Hawks can get out to early leads and make Los Angeles open up, advantage Chicago. If Los Angeles can grind Chicago’s top guys to a statistical halt, make it a mean and low-scoring trench war, advantage Kings.
NO REST FOR THE WICKED
The Kings played Game 7 against the Ducks on Friday night, flew four hours to Chicago on Saturday and will face off in Game 1 against the Hawks on Sunday afternoon. That’s a quick turnaround.
The Hawks have been off since Tuesday after wrapping up the Minnesota Wild in six games. They also had a long break between the first and second round. They are fresh and rested.
There will be a lot of time to recuperate in this series, with two days off between Games 1 and 2 and another two days off between Games 3 and 4, but Los Angeles must be running on fumes after playing back-to-back 7-game series — 14 playoff games in 29 days if you’re scoring at home. If this series goes deep, Chicago will surely have more spring in their step by the sixth or seventh game.
Chicago owns Los Angeles. Plain and simple. The Hawks rolled over the Kings in five games to win last season’s conference final and won all three meetings in the regular season this year.
They beat them in tight games (1-0), beat them in medium-scoring games (3-1) and beat them in high-scoring games (5-3).
Want to go back farther? Chicago won nine of its past 11 against Los Angeles dating back to the 2012-13 regular season.
The Hawks don’t seem to have much problem with bruising, hard-playing, tight-checking opponents, having beaten Boston in last year’s Cup final and St. Louis this year.
Have the Kings figured out and rectified the glitch in their matchup with Chicago? Did adding Gaborik at the trade deadline provide the necessary offensive punch they didn’t have before?
LEADING BRAND vs GENERIC
Jonathan Quick vs. Corey Crawford. If you listen to popular opinion, Quick is one of the best in the world at the top of his game, the cornerstone of L.A.’s lineup while Crawford is just a good goalie who’s fortunate enough to be on a great team (think Mike Vernon or Chris Osgood).
Crawford don’t get no respect, that’s for certain, but his numbers are every bit as intimidating as the American Olympian at the other end of the ice.
He enters the third round with the best goals against average (1.97) in the playoffs and a .931 save percentage. Granted, the second round was against Minnesota, but, still, those are rock-solid totals.
He has had lapses in both series, but regained his footing and finished strongly (going 8-2 in his past 10 games).
Quick, for whatever reason, can’t get comfortable against the Hawks. Including last year’s playoffs, he is 7-16-1 against them. Crawford, on the other hand, is 10-4-0 in his past 14 against the Kings.
LULL A KINGS
It sounds ridiculous to suggest a team in the third round of the playoffs hasn’t been consistent, but the Kings haven’t been consistent. It’s remarkable, if not miraculous, that a team with two three-game losing streaks in the playoffs is still alive, but they are.
They fell behind 3-0 to the Sharks before rallying back to win the series with four straight wins, then let a 2-0 series lead against Anaheim deteriorate into a 3-2 deficit.
They have dodged death twice and would be well-advised to avoid a fate-tempting hat-trick because Chicago twists the knife for fun.
On the other hand, the Kings have already faced elimination six times in these playoffs. That has to be good for the nerves.
In games where the Blackhawks can clinch a series in five or six games, they are on a 14-0 run.