What a difference a week makes. Last time I wrote, the Chicago Blackhawks were on the brink of elimination against the Detroit Red Wings and now they're just two wins away from ousting the defending champion Los Angeles Kings and returning to the Stanley Cup Final. The conference finals have tons of storylines, but with two games done out West and Game 2 coming Monday night in the East, this is what I've noticed so far.
THE BLACKHAWKS ARE BACK
Chicago didn't look quite the same over the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but after two wins to start the Western Conference Final against Los Angeles, the Blackhawks are starting to look like the team that dominated in the first half of the season. They've won the last two games against the best defensive team in the Western Conference and they did it with a remarkable amount of composure. Chicago outplayed L.A. badly in the first period and still ended up trailing when the Kings scored first. That could have easily escalated in frustration, but the Blackhawks continued doing what they do. They didn't panic. They attacked Jonathan Quick, they looked faster than L.A., they were much more in control and they just kept shooting and going to the net and they got rewarded.
This was a big message sender by Chicago in a lot of ways, and it showed the Kings they aren't playing the St. Louis Blues or the San Jose Sharks anymore. This is a team that is complete, talented and deep. We're sitting here right now and Chicago is two games up in the third round and Jonathan Toews has one goal this postseason and Patrick Kane has two. Obviously someone is supplying the offense. Most of that credit has gone to Bryan Bickell lately, but at times Andrew Shaw, Viktor Stalberg, Marcus Kruger and Dave Bolland have all been great. The Blackhawks knew that to win in this League you need a good third and fourth line. They went out and got them and it's paying dividends.
WHAT DO THE KINGS DO?
In many ways, things unraveled for the Kings on Sunday night, but for the most part this is a team that has played the way it wants to play so far. Game 1 was a 2-1 final on the road. We know the Kings aren't as good on the road as they are at home, but in Game 1 they had exactly what they wanted: a close, low-scoring game with a chance to win late. The Kings have no illusions. They know Quick is their best player. They know if they're going to beat Chicago, Quick has to be great. But they can also say that they got outplayed on the road in that first game and they were right there at the end. When the series heads to L.A. it could be the exact same way, except Quick makes that one save they need.
As for the task ahead, the Kings can look at this 2-0 series deficit and know that they've done it already. They did it against St. Louis, things looked dark, and then they went home and won two games before reeling off the last two. The Kings will have to win a road game sooner or later, but they won't panic because they've been here before and they're very confident. Two games against Chicago is a little different from two games in St. Louis, but the mindset has to be that they've already done this once.
PITTSBURGH FALLS APART
As I watched Game 1 between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins on Saturday night, the main thing that grabbed my attention was how undisciplined Pittsburgh was. The Penguins looked very similar to the team that played the Philadelphia Flyers last year and just completely unraveled in the first round of the playoffs. They totally lost their focus. Sure, they could have been up by two or three goals at some point in Game 1 -- their top players all had great chances and they hit some posts -- but they weren't. As soon as Boston scored, the Penguins became unglued. They took bad penalties, Evgeni Malkin started fighting, Sidney Crosby went nuts -- that's how they looked against Philadelphia last year, and that can't happen. The Penguins are going to win with offense. They're not going to win with fighting and hitting. The Penguins aren't the toughest team in the NHL, but they are the most talented. They need to use that as their strength. They're going to win by outscoring Boston, and in Game 1 the Pens took their offense out of the game with a number of bad penalties.
The amazing thing about this is I didn't really feel Boston pushed them around much. I can't remember Crosby or Malkin getting hit hard, they just got extra attention. Zdeno Chara played Crosby tough, but that's a sign of respect. The Bruins have to cover those guys, and that's what they did. The Penguins need to rely on what they did in the start of Game 1, when they came out flying, looked faster than Boston and looked crisp offensively. They cannot lose their composure like they did Saturday night.
VOKOUN STAYS IN NET
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Monday that Tomas Vokoun would remain Pittsburgh's starter in Game 2. There was a lot of noise before this about Bylsma putting Marc-Andre Fleury back in net, and I just don't understand it. Vokoun may have lost in Game 1, but he still played well. One goal was a tip-in off Paul Martin he couldn't stop and another was a one-timer from Nathan Horton where Horton was just wide open and fired a blast into the net. Those are things a goalie can't necessarily help, and I don't understand why people think Fleury will be the answer all of a sudden.
Fleury struggled last postseason, he struggled this postseason and all of a sudden he's the savior? I think Vokoun played well Saturday night, and he certainly played well against Ottawa in the second round. He was solid, and the bottom line is the Penguins didn't score any goals. If you don't score, you're not going to win no matter how good your goalie is. As Pittsburgh got more undisciplined, Boston got better scoring chances. Vokoun was the guy that kept it close and gave his team a chance to recoup. I still think Vokoun is the guy. This is still his team right now, and that's how it should be.
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