The defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks hold a 1-0 series advantage over the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference Finals, making Wednesday's Game 2 clash a pivotal one for both teams.
Los Angeles is no stranger to Stanley Cup success in its own right, having won the title two seasons ago. If the Kings want to return to the pinnacle of the NHL, however, they have some work to do. The Blackhawks and Kings may be the two most complete teams in hockey, so this series isn't over by a long shot.
With Chicago looking to increase its lead and L.A. trying to even things up, here are the biggest keys to be mindful of during Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.
A hot goaltender can make up for plenty of shortcomings and steal games for his team come playoff time. It just so happens that both the Blackhawks and Kings are the beneficiaries of elite netminders. Corey Crawford has developed into one of the NHL's best over the past couple seasons for Chicago, while Jonathan Quick is considered by many to be atop the heap for Los Angeles.
Quick seems to receive a bit more credit for his accomplishments than Crawford, as he won the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP a couple of years ago and followed that up by winning the starting job between the pipes for Team USA in the 2014 Olympics. The perception was once that Crawford was propped up by a great supporting cast, but he has pulled his weight as well.
As pointed out by Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times, Crawford and Quick are essentially playoff equals in reality:
Fun fact: Corey Crawford and Jonathan Quick are tied for fourth all-time in playoff save percentage (minimum 40 games). #Blackhawks— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) May 17, 2014
One might assume that Crawford is out on a quest for respect in an effort to prove that he is equal to or even better than Quick. Crawford's singular focus seems to be winning, though, as he doesn't view this series as a direct competition with Quick, according to Dennis Bernstein of The Fourth Period:
Crawford on if playing Quick effects him" no, only if he skated down ice and started dangling" Toews: "well said" pic.twitter.com/mJTK3LhNB1— Dennis Bernstein (@DennisTFP) May 18, 2014
Crawford certainly has a point, since his main focus is the Kings' shooters, but the matchup between Crawford and Quick isn't unlike two ace pitchers in baseball. They are independent of each other, but the goal is for them to outperform their counterpart.
The task is a bit tougher for Quick since the Blackhawks are more dynamic offensively than the Kings, but both goalies have their hands full. Whichever backstop comes through with the better showing on Wednesday will almost certainly help his team score a victory.
Blackhawks' Home-Ice Advantage
Every NHL player would prefer to play at home if given the choice, since familiar surroundings and fan support tend to make it much easier to perform. No team has taken advantage of home ice in the playoffs better than the Blackhawks in recent years, though.
Chicago has yet to lose at the United Center this postseason, and it has lost only twice at home in its past 20 playoff tries, which puts the Blackhawks in elite company, according to Lazerus:
The #Blackhawks have won 18 of their last 20 home playoff games. The last team to do that was the Oilers, from 1988-90.— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) May 19, 2014
The Hawks continued that trend in Game 1 with a 3-1 win over the Kings, and they have an opportunity to pin Los Angeles against the wall as the series heads west. The Kings are capable of overcoming deficits, as they proved in the first round by coming back from 3-0 down in the series to oust the San Jose Sharks.
What is the biggest key to Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals?
Chicago is a team that knows how to seal the deal in the postseason, though, which would make a 2-0 deficit very tough for Los Angeles to erase.
It is difficult to say why the Blackhawks are so good at home when compared to other teams, but defenseman Nick Leddy credits the fans, per Tracey Myers of CSNChicago.com.
"The crowd's been unbelievable; obviously that helps a lot," Leddy said. "It helps out our momentum, and momentum is huge in the playoffs."
The United Center will most definitely be rocking once again Wednesday night, with the Blackhawks looking to take a commanding lead in the series. The Kings have thrived in hostile environments plenty of times over the past few years, and they will have to channel that road resilience once again in Game 2.
Anze Kopitar vs. Jonathan Toews
The Blackhawks and Kings each boast a number of players who can dominate any given game. With that said, there are only two who can make a major impact in essentially every facet. For Chicago, that distinction goes to captain Jonathan Toews. Center Anze Kopitar brings many of the same things to the table for Los Angeles.
Toews is a former Conn Smythe Trophy winner who always seems to come up with decisive plays in big moments. Not only is he excellent offensively, but he also excels on the defensive end. That is also true for Kopitar, who leads the NHL playoffs in scoring with an impressive 19 points, which is four more than teammate Marian Gaborik in second place.
Despite Kopitar's offensive dominance, he was held off the score sheet in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. That was largely due to Toews diligence against him defensively. According to Lazerus, the Hawks' captain shadowed Kopitar throughout the contest:
Jonathan Toews was on the ice for at least part of every one of Anze Kopitar's even-strength shifts, except for the last one. #Blackhawks— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) May 18, 2014
Kopitar attempted to do the same against Toews, but he netted an insurance marker late in Game 1 to seal the victory for Chicago. Kopitar and Toews are both Selke-worthy players, as they are among the best two-way players in the NHL. This series will largely come down to which star performs better.
The advantage went to Toews in Game 1, but Kopitar can help flip the script in Game 2 if he raises his level of play.
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