Among all of the superstars whose successes and failures will have a tremendous impact on the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks matchup in the Western Conference Final, no player's performance will play a bigger role in determining the outcome of the series than Jonathan Quick's.
The dilemma for the Blackhawks to solve is finding ways to beat Los Angeles' starting goaltender on a consistent basis, which has proven to be the most difficult of challenges in the playoffs thus far.
As well as Quick played last season when he led the Kings to their first championship in franchise history as the Conn Smythe Trophy winner, he's been as good or better in several statistical categories during the 2013 NHL playoffs.
Quick has allowed two goals or fewer in 11 of his last 13 starts and is the most consistent goaltender in the playoffs.
Simply, he's the most dominant player in the world right now. Kings defenseman Drew Doughty put it this way to LA Kings Insider:
He won the Conn Smythe last year, and I was saying to a couple guys yesterday, "He makes better saves than I think he did all playoff run last year."
He’s just been standing on his head for us, and it’s great to have him do that, but I think we’ve got to back him up a little more. He’s been having to make too many big saves.
Who is the best goalie in the NHL?
When the Blackhawks made a stronger effort to get bodies in front of Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard in their second-round series, they started to score more goals and make Howard work harder to stop the puck in traffic.
This has to be the game plan against the Kings, but since Quick plays so low to the ice, he rarely loses sight of the puck and stays calm, cool and collected when there is heavy traffic in front of his net. His strong positioning and vision allow him to stop deflected shots and make quick reflex saves.
Chicago does a great job of beating goalies high glove side because of the impressive amount of snipers in its top three lines, but Quick's high hockey intelligence does well to take away this area of the net by coming out of his crease to cut down the angle.
Quick also doesn't lose focus when opposing players interfere with him. He won't let contact or soft goals negatively impact him. Playing mind games with Quick or trying to rattle him isn't an effective strategy.
The Blackhawks are one of the most effective third-period teams in the NHL. Chicago's plus-six rating in the final 20 minutes is the best among the four conference finalists, and its 14 third-period goals are tied for the second-most this postseason.
Maintaining this level of success in the third period against Quick will not be easy.
He has allowed just five third-period goals through 13 games, which is the fewest among all goaltenders. In his team's seven-game second-round series victory over the high-powered San Jose Sharks, Quick gave up just three third-period goals and made a number of clutch saves to prevent the Kings' season from ending, including a stunning stop on Joe Pavelski in Game 7 (watch here).
Chicago does a great job of moving the puck quickly in the attacking zone, especially on the power play, to open up shooting lanes and test the opposing goaltender's athletic ability. But no goaltender moves from post to post faster than Quick; his lateral mobility is phenomenal.
Speaking of the power play, this is one area of the game that the Blackhawks absolutely must be effective in for a positive outcome in this series.
Since the Kings have given up the fewest even-strength goals among the conference finalists, Chicago needs to capitalize on the man advantage. Per James Mirtle of the Globe and Mail:
Jonathan Quick had a .946 even strength save percentage during the Kings Cup run last season. He's at .960 now.— James Mirtle (@mirtle) May 30, 2013
The Blackhawks' power play improved toward the end of their series against the Red Wings, but with a 16.2 percent success rate, they are the only team in the conference finals that isn't converting on at least 20 percent of its chances.
In the second round, Quick allowed just four power-play goals in 26 short-handed situations. And for the entire playoffs, the Kings are killing 86 percent of their penalties, which ranks second among the four remaining clubs.
When Quick is stopping nearly every shot, the opposing team often gets very frustrated, which forces it to press and lose focus. The Blackhawks became very frustrated in the second round when Howard became the first goalie to shut them out all season in Game 4, and their frustration reached its peak when they lost three straight games for the first time in 2013 and fell behind 3-1 in the series.
If Quick starts the series well and stands on his head in the first two games at the United Center, the Blackhawks will need to show much more mental toughness than they did in Round 2.
Who will win this series?
We saw Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews reach a level of frustration we rarely see from him when he scored just one goal against the Red Wings and made a small impact offensively.
When the opposing head coach sends his best players over the boards, Quick takes his game to a higher level. Sharks star forwards Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski scored just two goals combined versus Quick in the last round.
With that said, don't be surprised if Toews, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp's scoring struggles don't end in the conference finals.
Don't be surprised if the highly skilled and deep Blackhawks offense is unable to score enough goals against Quick to win this series and prevent the Kings from reaching back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals.
The Kings rely heavily on Quick to stand on his head in nearly every playoff game, but this level of responsibility doesn't bother the star goaltender. When he's on top of his game, there are very few ways to beat him, and his confidence right now is off the charts.
If there's one goaltender in the NHL who is talented enough to shut down the high-powered Blackhawks offense over the course of a seven-game series, it's Quick.
That's why the Kings will win the Western Conference Final in six games.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Nick was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs, and he is also a credentialed writer at the 2013 NHL playoffs in Boston.