Who'll Have the Advantage in Blackhawks and Kings' Growing Rivalry in 2014-15
The Los Angeles Kings are still celebrating their Stanley Cup triumph, but even as they are feted in Southern California, Canada and elsewhere, they are making plans to prepare for the 2014-15 season.
The Kings will have many competitors trying to take their beloved chalice away from them, and perhaps no team will have a better chance of doing so than the Chicago Blackhawks. The Kings eliminated the Blackhawks in seven hard-fought games in the Western Conference Final, while the Blackhawks beat the Kings in the same round in 2013 in five games.
That triumph propelled Chicago to last year's Stanley Cup.
If the Blackhawks are going to get back to the championship, they know they are going to have to find a way to overcome the formidable champions.
While both teams will make changes as a result of free agency, trades and the draft, here's an early look at each team's advantages in this key NHL rivalry.
Chicago: The Blackhawks were the second-highest scoring team during the regular season, as they averaged 3.18 goals per game. With stars like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp, it seemed that Joel Quenneville's team could manufacture offense whenever it needed a key goal. The Blackhawks have some weaknesses, as they often had a difficult time putting Kane together with a competent center, but their skill and accurate shooting have made them one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the league.
Los Angeles: The Kings were not considered in the first rank of contenders to win the Stanley Cup at the start of the playoffs because they ranked 26th in scoring as they averaged 2.42 goals per game during the 82-game season. The Kings certainly turned it on in the playoffs behind Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Marian Gaborik and Justin Williams, but Kopitar and Carter were the only Kings to score 50 points or more during the regular season.
Advantage: Chicago, but it's not as great as the stats dictate. Los Angeles has the ability to turn defense into offense, and the Kings proved it repeatedly during the postseason.
Chicago: The Blackhawks struggled on defense compared to past seasons, as they allowed 2.58 goals per game in the regular season, a figure that ranked 12th in the league. The Blackhawks ranked first in that category in 2013 when they won the Stanley Cup. The Blackhawks have a solid group of four core defensemen in Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson, but that group had several lapses during the regular season and the playoffs. Those issues played a key role in their ordinary regular-season showing as well as their defeat to the Kings in the playoffs.
Los Angeles: No surprise that Darryl Sutter's team finished first in the NHL in goals allowed during the regular season with a mark of 2.05 goals per game. The Kings are quite responsible defensively in all areas of the ice, and Kopitar's defensive skills are on par with Toews and Boston's Patrice Bergeron. The defense crew was led by the redoubtable Drew Doughty, who is one of the best clutch players in the league and is quite responsible defensively. The Kings also played a much more physical brand of defense than the Blackhawks, and that makes it much harder for opponents to sustain play in the Kings defensive zone.
Advantage: Los Angeles. The Kings built a significant advantage in this area during the past season, but Chicago appears capable of improving next year. Don't expect head coach Joel Quenneville to settle for having the 12th-best defensive team in the league in 2014-15.
Chicago: Corey Crawford has some Rodney Dangerfield in him. He has the support of general manager Stan Bowman, Quenneville and his teammates, but Blackhawks fans are quick to criticize him. Crawford had a good, but not great, regular season as he had a 2.26 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage. Still, Crawford appeared to give up one stoppable goal per game, and that cost him and the team from time to time. The Blackhawks were also quite poor in games that went past 60 minutes (7-15 in regular season overtime and shootouts), and fans held that against him on talk shows and social media. Whatever inadequacies Crawford may have, he excels at bouncing back after giving up a poor goal or having a bad game. Few goalies are able to move on the way Crawford can.
Los Angeles: Jonathan Quick not only backstopped the Kings to the Stanley Cup championship, he earned the No. 1 goalie position for the United States team in the Sochi Olympics. He is one of the most athletic goaltenders the game has seen, and his ability to go post-to-post to make the save has made him a brilliant goaltender. Quick had a 2.07 GAA during the regular season to go with a .915 save percentage. While his numbers were just decent overall in the postseason—2.58 and .911 save percentage—his ability to make the big save at the key moment was one of the telling factors in the Kings' Stanley Cup run.
Advantage: Los Angeles. The Kings get the advantage in this category, but it is not as big as some Crawford critics would make it out to be. Crawford has excellent skills and can bounce back as well as any goaltender, but he is not at the same level as Quick.
Chicago: Joel Quenneville was an outstanding leader with the St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche, but he has really come into his own with the Blackhawks. He has led them to two Stanley Cup championships, and they were within a razor-thin margin of getting back to the championship round this year. Quenneville has 17 years of NHL coaching under his belt and is third all-time with 706 regular-season victories.
Los Angeles: Darryl Sutter may not enjoy his sessions with the media, but he has been precisely the type of coach the Kings have needed. He has led them to two Stanley Cups in the last three years, after being hired by general manager Dean Lombardi early in the 2011-12 season. Sutter is a coaching veteran with 14 years under his belt. He had success with Chicago, San Jose and Calgary before getting his turn with the Kings. Sutter has 507 career regular-season victories, ranking 16th on the all-time list.
Advantage: Chicago. Quenneville's edge is not a big one, but he has 199 more regular-season victories than Sutter. Quenneville is also a better all-around communicator than his rival, although Sutter apparently has no trouble getting his message across to his players.
Chicago: The Blackhawks were fairly ordinary in the regular season, but they turned it on in the playoffs and secured victories over the St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild. They pushed the Kings to the limit in the Western Conference Final, but they lost in heartbreaking fashion. The memory of that defeat should spur the Blackhawks to consistently play at their best in 2014-15. With their extraordinary individual talent, they should be capable of a championship-caliber season.
Los Angeles: While the Blackhawks were whispering the "D" word at the start of the postseason this year, the Kings will have a more legitimate claim on a dynasty if they can repeat next year. If they win the title, that will give them three Stanley Cups in four seasons. Back-to-back championships and a dynasty claim will provide strong motivation.
Advantage: Chicago. Both teams will be motivated, but the Blackhawks feel like they let an opportunity get away in the most heartbreaking fashion. The NBA's San Antonio Spurs used "heartbreak/revenge" motivation to defeat the Miami Heat in that league's championship round this year, and the Blackhawks could use those same factors to defeat the Kings in the postseason next year.