The Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings are the last two teams standing in the Western Conference for a reason. Both squads play skin-tight brands of hockey, and that was on full display throughout Game 1—a contest that the defending Stanley Cup champions won, 3-1.
This was a matinee that could have gone either way, though. While the 'Hawks came away with their seventh straight victory on home ice in these playoffs, Los Angeles should be pleased with its overall performance. This is a series that is going to be determined by little things, and Chicago came out on top after 60 minutes this time.
Game 2 could be different, especially if the Kings continue to play like they did in the opening contest. Following a controversial no-goal call against the 'Hawks in the second period, L.A. sprang to life and really started to take the game to Chicago. It's that tape that head coach Darryl Sutter should replay for his troops as they rally and regroup for their chance to make this a 1-1 series on Wednesday.
Los Angeles' Best Players Performed Up to Expectations
The 2013-14 NHL playoffs have been defined by All-World players failing to deliver when the games matter the most. Sidney Crosby has taken a lot of heat following the Pittsburgh Penguins' exit, and Rick Nash has been under fire throughout the postseason for not scoring with any sort of frequency.
The Kings aren't having any issues with their top players. Only Tyler Toffoli managed to beat Corey Crawford in Game 1, but L.A. received a ton of chances from its other high-end players.
That's the kind of shot output that will make a difference across a seven-game series. Chicago had issues with Jeff Carter's line in particular, and that trio came within a breath of scoring on a handful of occasions. They held onto the puck and made things happen in the offensive zone at a high rate.
Game 1 head-to-head possession numbers. LA's most effective line from a possession standpoint was the Carter line. pic.twitter.com/nlDMt7jrtY— Robert P. (@RobertJFTC) May 18, 2014
That possession didn't translate into more goals in Game 1, but it gives the Kings reason to maintain their confidence heading into Game 2.
The Kings Drove Play More Often Than Not
The magic word for the Kings following Game 1 is possession. There are many keys to winning tight playoff games, but L.A. had the puck more often than Chicago in this contest and had several extended sequences of high pressure against Crawford.
Teams that have the puck tend to score more often than teams that don't, and the Kings were the better possession team in Game 1.
Corsi works better across larger sample sizes, but L.A. drove the play according to the eye test and more basic stats as well. When Game 1 was still wide open and up for grabs in the second period, it was the Kings that dominated the 'Hawks and hemmed them into their defensive zone.
It's not often you see Chicago outshot 17-6 in a period, but that's how well the second frame went for the Kings. If Toffoli hits the open net instead of a post at the beginning of the third period, suddenly the game is 2-2 and the Blackhawks can't sit back in a defensive posture for the entire third frame.
Don't expect the Kings to count their "what ifs" following Game 1, but they had a number of chances to change the complexion of this hockey game in the second and third periods. They just missed by a matter of an inch or two on several occasions.
It's a series of little things, after all.
Chicago's Offense Didn't Dominate, Scored Puck Luck Goals
For some reason, fans get upset when a goal by their team is deemed "lucky." In this case, luck doesn't equate a lack of talent or even an undeserved outcome. It's simply a distinction: Some goals are scored with skill, while others bounce in off of sticks or divots in the ice.
When Jonathan Toews scored Chicago's third goal in Game 1, it wasn't luck.
The Blackhawks' first two tallies found the team on the benefactor side of the puck-luck scale though, as both Brandon Saad and Duncan Keith found the back of the net via deflections or bounces. That's the breaks, and the way that the hockey gods decided to shine in this particular contest.
Across a series, things tend to even out and the Kings are "owed" a convenient goal or two following Game 1. Even Toews' disallowed goal went in off of Slava Voynov—the Kings dodged a bullet on that specific play, but in general they weren't able to capitalize in the same fashion as Keith or Saad.
There's no denying that good teams earn their luck, and the Blackhawks did that in Game 1. Nothing was handed to them, and this notion isn't to deny them their victory. The Kings aren't going to remain as hapless as the series evolves, nor are the 'Hawks going to continue to score two goals a game off of bounces and double-deflections.
The Depth Effect
The Blackhawks are on the verge of becoming a dynasty because of their ability to find players in the draft that can step in and become important players within a few years of being drafted. Saad is an outstanding example. So are Andrew Shaw and Bryan Bickell.
To beat Chicago, your star players don't just have to be better than Toews and Patrick Kane. The depth players need to outperform clutch guys like Bickell, and that's where squads typically run into trouble against the 'Hawks.
The Kings have an answer in this series, and it's Toffoli. Aside from Kane, no player looked more dangerous with the puck on his stick in Game 1. He was named the third star of the contest after scoring a goal, generating four shots and finishing with an even rating through 13:59 of ice time.
Marian Gaborik will make an impact on this series, as will Carter and Anze Kopitar. The best-case scenario for the Kings sees those three wash with Kane, Toews and Marian Hossa. That leaves Toffoli, Justin Williams and Mike Richards as the guys that can put L.A. over the top and into the Stanley Cup Final.
That task could be left to lesser forwards.
Game 1 was a contest of inches and the Blackhawks prevailed. That doesn't mean the Kings don't have any positives to take away from the game. Joel Quenneville has a few adjustments to make ahead of Game 2 while the Kings just need to play the same way they did in Game 1 to have a great chance of evening the series.
That's why the playoffs are about: chances and conversions. In the opening game, the Blackhawks were able to weather Los Angeles' offensive flurries and then found ways to convert on limited opportunities. Outstanding teams do that, but the Kings are an excellent squad too.
They'll be even sharper in Game 2, and they're just one bounce or favorable post ring away from knotting this thing up as it shifts back to L.A. The Kings shook off a hard-fought seven-game series against the Anaheim Ducks and traveled some 2,000 miles to Chicago for Game 1 on the Western Final. Despite being the more worn down team, the Kings looked strong in Game 1.
They may be trailing in the series, but their collective game is more than good enough to give the Blackhawks everything they can handle moving forward.
All statistics appear courtesy of NHL.com.