Blackhawks vs. Kings: Preview and Prediction for NHL Playoffs 2014 Matchup
Just as it was one season ago, the Western Conference champion is going to be decided by a series between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Los Angeles Kings.
Both teams were challenged en route to this point, though the Kings got closer to the precipice than the Hawks.
Chicago faced a very difficult matchup against the St. Louis Blues in the first round, a legitimate contender that had added goaltender Ryan Miller as its final piece for a long run. The Blackhawks held off that challenge before meeting a surprisingly competitive Minnesota Wild team in the second round.
The Kings' road was even tougher, including a pair of seven-game series against the always competitive San Jose Sharks and then the regular-season Western Conference champion Anaheim Ducks.
In the following slides, we'll break down the two best teams in the West, look at the schedule, key storylines and players to watch and provide everything else a fan needs to prepare for what should be an exceptional series.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics are courtesy of NHL.com.
The rout appeared to be on after two games in which the Blackhawks outscored the Wild by a combined total of 9-3, but Minnesota wasn't going to go away quietly. The Wild came back with a pair of home wins, running up an 8-2 goals advantage over Chicago in those two games. The blowouts stopped in the final two contests of the series, with Chicago winning a pair of 2-1 tilts, with the deciding Game 6 going to overtime.
Los Angeles Kings
The Kings needed an epic comeback to beat San Jose in Round 1, so in Round 2, they put what they had learned to work and got off to a hot start against the Anaheim Ducks.
Then they blew it.
Anaheim, thoroughly dominated in the series' opening pair of games, managed to win three consecutive contests, with two of those victories coming in L.A. Once again, the Kings needed to make up a deficit, and they played their best hockey in convincing Game 6 and Game 7 wins.
Schedule and TV Info
The schedule breaks down as follows:
- Game 1: Sunday, May 18, 3 p.m. ET
- Game 2: Wednesday, May 21, 8 p.m. ET
- Game 3: Saturday, May 24, 8 p.m. ET
- Game 4: Monday, May 26, 9 p.m. ET
- Game 5*: Wednesday, May 28, 8 p.m. ET
- Game 6*: Friday, May 30, 9 p.m. ET
- Game 7*: Sunday, June 1, 8 p.m. ET
Game 1 will be carried on NBC, TSN and RDS.
Games 2 and 4 will be carried on NBCSN, TSN and RDS
Game 3 will be carried on NBC, CBC and RDS.
Games 5-7 will be carried on NBCSN, CBC and RDS.
Will we see a closer series this time?
There will be plenty of comparisons to last year's third-round matchup between these two teams, and although that one was decided in five games, there may be a tendency to remember it as a blowout. The reality is that outside of the Game 2 victory (4-2) and the Game 3 loss (3-1), every Hawks win came by a single goal. So while the series was decided in five games, it was a long way from being an easy five games. Nevertheless, Los Angeles certainly had (and has) higher aspirations.
The Kings victorious when facing elimination
Twice in these playoffs, Los Angeles has had to win a series in seven games. Six times the team has faced elimination in any given contest. Remarkably, L.A. is 6-0; it's an incredible run that will likely be put to the test again against an excellent Chicago team.
Players to Watch
Hossa leads all Blackhawks forwards in playoff scoring, but the scary thing is that he hasn't even really broken out yet. Hossa's 11 points primarily have come in the form of assists (nine), but he's gone a miserable 2-for-47 as a shooter. His career average shooting percentage is roughly triple his current clip, and eventually those pucks will start going in.
Hossa expressed much of the same to Mark Potash of the Chicago Sun-Times.
"I don’t worry about [goals] too much," he said. "As long as I play my game, good things will happen. If I score or somebody else scores, as long as we win, that’s what counts."
The biggest difference between the version of the Kings Chicago meets this season compared to last season is the presence of Gaborik. Los Angeles has long been a dominant possession team, a gritty defensive team and an awfully difficult team to beat overall, but Gaborik is a player who can create something out of nothing, a speedy one-shot scorer with pure offensive instincts unlike anyone the Kings had at their disposal last year.
"Gaborik, the way he skates, definitely poses a threat and a problem," Chicago's Brent Seabrook told ESPN's Scott Burnside. "We're going to have to be ready to play them tight, hard, physical."
Crawford's reputation, even when he is playing well, has largely been that of an average goaltender behind a powerhouse team. That certainly hasn't been the story this year. While Chicago has been very good, Crawford has been tested and come through with flying colours. To date in the postseason, he has an excellent .931 save percentage.
If Crawford's reputation has been burnished by the 2014 postseason, Quick's own stellar rating has been knocked down a peg. The Kings starter was well known for previous miraculous performances but he hasn't been anywhere near as good this season, posting ugly stretches against both the Sharks and Ducks that nearly cost his team dearly. He's had good stretches to compensate, but on the whole, he's been only average.
The Kings and Blackhawks each have an all-world No. 1 defenceman—Drew Doughty and Duncan Keith, respectively—but after those two, there is an imbalance.
Much was made of Los Angeles getting through the second round sans Willie Mitchell and Robyn Regehr (two-thirds of the team's left-side depth chart), and the result was that waiver-wire pickup Jeff Schultz was bumped up the lineup and a struggling Matt Greene was placed in the lineup on an everyday basis.
Both teams have deep forward units, but the bottom end of the Kings defence is a little more exploitable than the Blackhawks' group.
Chicago Blackhawks Will Win If They Can Find Weaknesses in the L.A. Defence
The Kings, as NBCSN never tired of reminding viewers, were the best defensive team in the NHL during the regular season. In the first two rounds, L.A.'s defence trumped the offence of the Anaheim Ducks (first in the NHL during the regular season) and the San Jose Sharks (sixth).
Like the Ducks and Sharks, the Blackhawks are a proven offensive team in the regular season, finishing second in the NHL in goals per game. Unlike the Sharks, the Blackhawks will face a more depleted Los Angeles defence, and unlike the Ducks, their goal totals aren't based on an absurdly high shooting percentage.
Chicago showed last year that it could score against the Kings; if the team can do it again, this year it will advance.
Los Angeles Kings Will Win If Jonathan Quick Plays at a Conn Smythe Level
Los Angeles has fought its way past two very tough opponents to get to where it is today, and it has done it with only flashes of strong play from starter Jonathan Quick.
Chicago is the toughest team the Kings have faced, and an up-and-down performance from Quick isn't going to be good enough. When he gets hot, he's as good as any goalie in the NHL, and he's shown in the past that he can steal games and series all by himself.
He'll need to be special here.
This is a better Kings team than the one Chicago faced last year.
However, it's still awfully hard to pick Los Angeles. The Kings have injuries on the back end, a goaltender who has been hit and miss and they have shown a tendency to let inferior opponents take control for long stretches of a series.
Los Angeles has also had a tougher road to get to this point, as SB Nation's Greg Boysen notes, saying that "the fatigue of playing back to back seven game series," could prove costly for the Kings as they faceoff against a rested Chicago club.
Prediction: Blackhawks win in seven games.