In a classic battle of skill versus strength, the star power and offensive prowess of the Chicago Blackhawks were too much for the defending champion Los Angeles Kings in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final.
The top-seeded Blackhawks, led by their star forwards and stellar defense from top blueliner Duncan Keith, took the series opener, 2-1, at the United Center on Saturday to improve their home record to 7-1 during this year's playoffs.
Much of the talk before this series centered on the matchup between Chicago's superstar-laden forward group and star goaltender Jonathan Quick and the deep, physical Los Angeles defensive corps.
Quick entered the game as the playoff leader in GAA and save percentage, but he did not face an offense as talented or deep as Chicago's in the first two rounds when Los Angeles defeated the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks.
As the chart below shows (NHL rank in parentheses), those two teams' offenses don't compare to the Blackhawks'.
|Team||Reg. Season Goals For ||Playoff Goals For|
|Blues||2.58 (17th)||1.67 (15th of 16 teams)|
|Sharks||2.42 (24th)||2.27 (ninth)|
|Blackhawks||3.10 (second)||2.69 (sixth)|
The Blackhawks are a four-line team and generate offense regardless of which trio is on the ice. This depth allows the team to overcome the struggles of multiple stars because other players will step up and contribute. That was the case in Game 1, and it will likely be a theme throughout this series.
Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, the Blackhawks' most important forwards, combined for just five shots in Game 1.
Toews has one goal in his last five games, while Kane is scoreless in that stretch, but Chicago has won four of its last five games because of the team's impressive depth and the ability of other stars to raise their games. One night, it could be Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa who dominate offensively, with Toews, Kane or Keith leading the way in the next game.
With their two top forwards unable to make a strong impact offensively, top-six wingers Hossa and Sharp led the charge for the Blackhawks in Game 1.
Hossa's game-winning goal in the second period was a deflection past Quick after the veteran forward established a net-front presence in front of Quick. Getting traffic in front of Quick is a requirement to beat him, because when he sees the puck, it's saved almost 95 percent of the time this postseason. Hossa now has a four-game point streak with two goals and three assists in that time.
Sharp's goal to tie the game, 1-1, was a brilliant example of how to create scoring opportunities off rebounds against Quick (see video below). The Blackhawks made a stronger effort to shoot pucks off his far-side pad, which are difficult to control for goaltenders.
Another way to beat a goaltender—especially one as good and as confident as Quick—is to make him work hard for 60 minutes by being aggressive in the attacking zone with plenty of shots on net. The Blackhawks won the shots battle, 36-22, in Game 1 (13 shots from top-six forwards), and if Quick didn't make several world-class saves, the final score would have been far more lopsided.
Very few teams have the ability to score goals and win games versus elite goaltenders when players of Toews and Kane's caliber fail to get on the scoresheet consistently, but the Blackhawks have the scoring depth to overcome the struggles of multiple stars.
The only other team with a similar amount of scoring depth is the Pittsburgh Penguins, who lead the playoffs in goals scored. Chicago had nine players tally 20 or more points in the regular season and has received least one goal from nine of its 11 forwards who have played in 10 or more playoff games.
The Kings have not faced this kind of opponent in the postseason. Quick has to stop four quality lines that are capable of creating scoring chances on every shift, and it'll be hard for him to carry the abysmal Los Angeles offense (1.93 goals per game, lowest among remaining teams) to the Stanley Cup Final.
Chicago's stars took over Game 1 when the team needed it most, and their ability to pick up teammates who are struggling makes them a difficult opponent to beat four times in seven games.
The Kings are a strong defensive team led by the best goaltender in the world anchoring the back end, but if its top six forwards continue to get outplayed by their Blackhawks counterparts, Los Angeles' Stanley Cup defense will end in the near future.
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.