The Chicago Blackhawks and the Los Angeles Kings will face off in the Western Conference Final. The 'Hawks knocked off the Detroit Red Wings in a fast and furious Game 7 that required overtime, becoming the first team to recover from a 3-1 series deficit since 2010.
Championship-hopeful teams thrive on the opportunity to knock off the defending champs, and the 'Hawks will have just that chance after surviving the second round by the hair of their playoff beards.
It seems like a long time ago, but on January 19 the Kings raised their Stanley Cup banner from the 2012 season in front of a roaring and wild Staples Center crowd. The opposing team that night? None other than these same Blackhawks—Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Corey Crawford could only stand in silence as they had their noses rubbed in their recent playoff failure.
Chicago went on to win that game by a final score of 5-2 and wouldn't lose in regulation until March 8. These two top-end teams will have the chance to prove once and for all who the biggest and baddest team in the West is en route to earning the right to play for the Stanley Cup.
It took both the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks seven games to advance to the Western Conference Final, so neither team will be any more rested than the other. Momentum could be on Chicago's side after it's unlikely comeback against the Detroit Red Wings, but odds are the Kings aren't trembling in their skates after watching the 'Hawks stumble in that series.
L.A. and Chicago managed to assert their games late in the second round, paving the way up to this point.
While the teams out East have had a few extra days to rest up, the 'Hawks and Kings will be right back out on the ice on June 1—that gives L.A. three days of rest, while Chicago will have two days to recharge and prepare for the champs.
The Detroit Red Wings managed to get under the skin of Jonathan Toews in a big way in the second round, and things aren't going to get any easier for Captain Serious in the Western Conference Final. If Toews was having nightmares about Henrik Zetterberg's stick and occasional cross-check, he's going to end up with a case of night terrors after a game or two against Dustin Brown.
Detroit may have dropped the series to Chicago, but they developed an easily replicated playbook to follow en route to success against the high-powered 'Hawks. One that the Los Angeles Kings will be able to roll with quite easily.
The Wings aren't an overtly physical team. They aren't built to play the kind of hockey that they did in the second round, yet it took everything Chicago had to get by them. The Kings, on the other hand, are built to grind other teams into dust.
Things could get rough for Chicago's top-six, putting even more pressure on the third and fourth lines of the 'Hawks—both of which had a lot of do with the team winning Games 5 through 7.
Then there's the battle between the two best netminders in these playoffs. Everyone knew that Jonathan Quick would be a big part of any success that the Kings would have in this postseason, just like last year.
On the other side of the ice, Corey Crawford has been a revelation for Chicago. He was great against the Minnesota Wild in Round 1 and was outstanding against Detroit through seven games in Round 2. It'll be interesting to see if he can find another gear while going mask-up with the best big-game goalie in hockey.
Jonathan Toews: If he thought Round 2 was brutal, wait 'til he gets a load of the Kings. How he performs in this series could be a defining moment for the 25-year-old's career up to this point. If he can fight through the checks, keep his temper in check and score some timely goals, it'll become part of Chicago sports lore. If he loses it against Dustin Brown and Co., then it could cost his team a shot at the Stanley Cup. He needs to be at his absolute best for Chicago to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
Brent Seabrook: Through the first few games against the Detroit Red Wings, Seabrook was a non-factor. Then Coach Joel Quenneville reunited him with Duncan Keith and his game took off. The defensive half of that top-pairing was outstanding through the final two games of Round 2, looking unbeatable through large stretches while making big play after big play. His defense against odd-man rushes in particular was noteworthy as Chicago's top three players were allowed to forecheck Detroit to pieces. That Game 7 OT winner doesn't hurt matters either.
Patrick Sharp: Toews and Patrick Kane may get all the praise, but lately Sharp has been the one scoring all the goals. He's been the trigger man on a loaded top line that features Chicago's top three forwards and is currently tied with Sidney Crosby and Pascal Dupuis for the goal-scoring lead in these playoffs.
Los Angeles Kings
Dustin Brown: The physical force that is the King's Captain could have a field day with Chicago's top-six. That group was exposed a bit by Detroit in the second round, and even if Brown isn't finding the back of the net, he'll be making a massive impact on this series. Look for him to come out flying in the first game looking to make a pretty simple point: Justin Abdelkader doesn't have anything on me.
Justin Williams: Williams erupted for two goals in Game 7 against the San Jose Sharks and looked like the former 30-goal scorer that he is. He was dangerous from all over the ice and see to gain a lot of confidence after netting his first goal of the series. He hadn't scored since Game 4 of the first round—if he can get rolling then the Kings are just that much more dangerous.
Slava Voynov: If this guy was playing on the East Coast, he'd be just as much of a story as Torey Krug of the Boston Bruins. Since he's skating for the Kings on the West Coast, no one sees him play (past their bedtimes I guess) so no one gives him credit. That will change against the 'Hawks while playing on primetime television. He has seven points so far in the playoffs and is a plus-seven while averaging over 20 minutes a game.
This is where this series gets interesting.
Corey Crawford doesn't get a lot of respect around the NHL yet, and he certainly doesn't have the reputation of an elite netminder. If the first two rounds are any indication, Crawford is ready to change that perception.
He'll have the chance to do just that while squaring off against Jonathan Quick, who is widely regarded as one of the best big-game goalies around.
Quick leads the playoffs in save percentage, sporting a ridiculous .948. Breathing down his neck from the No. 3 spot though is Crawford, who has an equally impressive .935 save percentage. The Kings' netminder also sports the lowest GAA of the playoffs—a microscopic 1.50.
Right behind him? Crawford again, with a 1.78.
While Quick playing out of his mind is considered essential to his team's success, Crawford just needs to stand tall and not give up any softies. The 'Hawks have the offense to bail him out occasionally, while there's always the feeling that when L.A. scores a goal it could be the only one they need.
Jonathan Toews against the Los Angeles Kings' ferocious physicality.
After getting beaten up and battered by the Detroit Red Wings, it appeared that No. 19 for Chicago was bound to break. He managed to squeeze out of the series with his bones and reputation intact, but Detroit isn't known as an overtly physical squad.
They took on that persona just to try to bump Toews, Patrick Kane and Patrick Shark off of their games and it almost worked.
The Kings are built to play tough hockey through long playoff series. They want to get the puck in deep and grind away at the defense and they will hit literally every single player that touches the puck on the opposing team.
Can Toews find another level of perseverance against an L.A. team that will likely be out for his blood? The answer to that question could determine the outcome of the series.
Corey Crawford plays big and the 'Hawks can turn this series into a track meet.
When Chicago was baited into playing a physical and grinding game by the Detroit Red Wings, it had limited success. The 'Hawks tried to play that brand of hockey through Games 2 through 4 and it almost cost them the series.
The L.A. Kings are going to be just as unforgiving as the Wings and then some. Chicago will need to keep its collective cool and wait for the power-play chances to come. When it did that against Detroit, it won the games in convincing fashion while posting some big goals with the extra man.
If it can get L.A. to run and gun with the Kings, then this series could be over before it even starts. The Kings just don't have the weapons to fly with Chicago across an entire series, so opening up the neutral zone and controlling the flow of play are huge points of interest for the 'Hawks.
Then there's Crawford. He was a massive cog in Chicago's comeback against Detroit and will need to continue to play at that level for his team to return to the Stanley Cup Final once again.
They play the same way they did against the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks. Both of those teams are at least mildly built to handle that kind of physical play. Both the Blues and Sharks have bigger forwards in their top-six that can take the hit and make the play.
Chicago isn't built like that.
No one has ever accused Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith or Marian Hossa of being overly physical. In fact they are viewed as precisely the opposite. These guys need time and space to be at their best, and they don't have the strength to gain that advantage if someone is leaning on them.
So the Kings better get to leaning. That shouldn't be a problem considering the volume of hits that they've thrown through the first two rounds. The series against the Blues was brutal, and the Sharks tried to push back physically but to no avail.
L.A. needs to play its brand of hockey and not get sucked into an All-Star skills competition with Chicago's top-six forwards. The 'Hawks like to go all-in with their forecheck, so if the likes of Drew Doughty and Slava Voynov can quickly move the puck out of the defensive zone, there will be odd-man rushes galore waiting on the other side of the red line.
Finishing off those chances would be a huge boon in this series as well. Detroit wasn't able to capitalize when they had the 2-on-1's and 3-on-2's. L.A. would be doing itself a huge favor by cashing in on those occasionally.
Los Angeles Kings defeat Chicago Blackhawks, 4-3.
Home-ice advantage will be massive in this series. Chicago will go hunting for favorable matchups at home while L.A. will continue to be a dominating force at the Staples Center.
The Kings will need to grab a game on the road to win this thing, but that's right up their alley. They were incredible on the road en route to the Cup last year and only need to channel that for one game while winning out their games at home to advance.
Chicago withered a bit under Detroit's physical play—L.A. brings the hitting on a much bigger and more frequent level than the Wings do, and it will be the difference in this series. Quick will pitch at least one shutout, the Kings will steal a game on the road and close out the Presidents' Trophy winners in an intense, back-and-forth seven-game series.