Los Angeles Kings vs. Chicago Blackhawks Game 1: Keys for Each Team
The Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks will renew acquaintances for the second straight year when their 2014 Western Conference Final gets underway Sunday at the United Center.
When they met last season, the Blackhawks dispatched the Kings in five games before going on to win the Stanley Cup. The 'Hawks also held the edge in 2013-14, winning all three regular-season games.
Past results may not tell the whole story: Last year's series turned out lopsided, but each game was quite close.
Both Los Angeles and Chicago have played well so far in the postseason and should carry strong momentum into Round 3.
Here's a look at the keys for each team to try to gain the edge in Game 1. The series kicks off at 3 p.m. ET on Sunday.
All stats courtesy of NHL.com.
Key for Los Angeles: Maintain the Intensity
The Los Angeles Kings have faced elimination six times already in the 2014 playoffs, coming back from a 3-0 deficit against the San Jose Sharks in the first round, then a 3-2 deficit against the Anaheim Ducks.
The Kings respond impressively when their backs are against the wall, but they're playing with fire if they try the same trick against Chicago.
Thus far, Los Angeles' playoffs have consisted of a three-game losing streak followed by a six-game winning streak, then another three-game losing streak followed up with two wins.
The Kings need to ride the wave of their dominating 6-2 Game 7 win over Anaheim into Chicago and show the Blackhawks that they've come to play.
Key for Chicago: Rest vs. Rust
The Blackhawks will be coming into Game 1 on four days' rest after dispatching the Minnesota Wild in six games.
The break is great for healing the inevitable playoff bumps and bruises, but sometimes not so good for maintaining the necessary intensity. Will Chicago come out looking rested—or rusty?
Chicago forward Patrick Sharp told Tracey Myers of CSN Chicago that he's not worried about the break:
For us, it's a similar situation to the first round; we had a couple days off, got a chance to watch our opponent play. I think the days off helps every team this time of year to get some rest. It allows you to prepare for your opponent.
If Los Angeles does manage to carry over the high of its Game 7 win over the Ducks, Chicago will need to match them with similar emotion. A lackadaisical 'Hawks team in Game 1 could open the door for Los Angeles to steal home ice advantage and early momentum in the series.
Key for Los Angeles: Strong Play from the Defense
Los Angeles has been working at a disadvantage on defense, dealing with two key injuries on the left side.
Willie Mitchell has been out of action since Game 6 of the first round with an undisclosed injury, while Robyn Regehr was hurt during the first game of Round 2.
The injuries have heaped big responsibilities on fringe blueliner Matt Greene and former Washington Capital Jeff Schultz. After being signed as a free agent in the summer of 2013, Schultz spent the entire season in the minors with the Manchester Monarchs before making his Kings' debut when he was called upon to replace Regehr.
Green and Schultz were solid against the high-scoring Ducks. They'll need to deliver more of the same steady play against the powerful Chicago offense.
Key for Chicago: Hot Offense
Marian Hossa and Brent Seabrook lead the Blackhawks in scoring with 11 points each through two rounds. But when it comes to big goals, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane rule the day.
Through Chicago's eight playoff wins so far, Toews has scored the game-winner in four of those contests, while Patrick Kane is right behind him with three. Brandon Saad's the only other Blackhawk with a game-winner, from Game 2 against Minnesota.
The 'Hawks are deep enough to manufacture goals throughout their lineup, but when it gets to crunch time, Toews and Kane make the difference between winning and losing.
Key for Los Angeles: Score Some Goals
What a difference a year makes.
In the 2013 playoffs, the Los Angeles Kings scored a total of 37 goals in 18 playoff games, ranking 11th among teams in the postseason with an average of 2.06 goals per game. All teams below them were eliminated in the first round.
This year, Los Angeles leads the pack with 45 goals in just 14 games—an average of 3.21 goals per game. The catalysts are Anze Kopitar—leading all playoff scorers with 19 points—and his new linemate, Marian Gaborik, at the top of the goal-scoring ranks with nine tallies in 14 games.
With Justin Williams and Jeff Carter also chipping in consistently, a Kings team had struggled to score during the regular season has provided lots of run support for Jonathan Quick so far in the postseason.
Key for Chicago: Corey Crawford Stays Steady
As the Kings fire up their league-leading offense, the Blackhawks will counter with the top goaltender of the playoffs so far.
Corey Crawford doesn't get much respect, but through two rounds, he's leading all netminders with a 1.97 goals-against average and .931 save percentage. He has played every second for the Blackhawks so far and allowed just one goal in each of Chicago's elimination games.
If Crawford can shut the door on the Kings in Game 1, it could help set the stage for Chicago's return trip to the Stanley Cup Final.