How about that double-overtime thriller Wednesday night? It was a great game in which the Chicago Blackhawks extended the Western Conference Final with Michal Handzus' winner in Game 5 against the Los Angeles Kings. The Kings lead the best-of-7 series 3-2.
I mentioned earlier in the week how Chicago made certain adjustments against the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final last year. The Kings are a very similar team to the Boston Bruins. Chicago knew what it took to win the Stanley Cup against Boston last year and the adjustments it had to make in the last two games of that series. I thought the Blackhawks made a lot of the same adjustments in Game 5 in Chicago.
First of all, their D was involved in the play again, which they need and encourage. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were excellent, and Seabrook and Johnny Oduya got the party started with early goals. More than anything, they showed their grit against the Kings.
They'll have to do it again in Game 6 at Staples Center (9 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS).
The line of Patrick Kane, Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw was amazing. You know on that line that you have a guy in Shaw who is willing to go to the net and a guy in Saad who is powerful enough and skates well enough to counter the size and strength of the Kings. That opened up things for Kane. That line was amazing and helped win the game. For me, the key was Shaw's toughness.
The Blackhawks were willing to get their hands dirty in Game 5 and having Shaw in the lineup has a lot to do with it. He's the Brad Marchand of the West. Shaw is very wiry and thin, but he makes a huge difference in that lineup and can play all three forward positions. He's willing to do something consistently that other guys aren't necessarily willing to do: Pay the price.
You need to go to the front of the net and take a hack or a cross-check? No problem. He's willing to get there and be there. He's a 20-goal scorer and has improved so much from his time in the minors. He is an evolved shift-disturber who can score. Those guys are hard to come by.
Shaw is a classic example of how a smallish player can play big. The conventional wisdom used to be that you needed size above all else to win in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Today, I firmly believe the lines between size and toughness have been blurred. Just because you're a big forward or big defenseman doesn't mean that you play big.
Minnesota Wild forward Zach Parise isn't the biggest player in stature, but he plays big in terms of his compete level, power on his skates and puck possession. How many times have you seen him get knocked down? I played with him for two years and I don't remember ever seeing him get knocked down or pushed off the puck.
To make a deep playoff run, you need guys with those kinds of hybrid qualities. More than anything, you need players who are willing to play hard against a big, tough team like the Kings. The Blackhawks demonstrated how to do that in Game 5.
There are a lot of guys in the NHL who have good puck skills. But unless you're willing to put yourself in a position to make those plays, unless you're willing to pay that price, then it's all for naught. Then you have to live off your perimeter game; that's a tough way to make a living coming down the stretch in March and April and during the playoffs.
Both conferences have been great, but when you look at the Western Conference and how these teams are built, it's pretty impressive. Overall, they just play a different brand of hockey.
Look at the Western Conference today. That's tough hockey out there with teams like the Kings and San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks. The Wild gave Chicago everything it could handle in their playoff series. It just seems like a real hard game in the West with the mix of size and skill, never mind the travel.
It's such a steep price to get to the top of the mountain in the West.
The Columbus Blue Jackets, who were in the West last year, played like a Western Conference team this season. Their little guys play big and are courageous. They took the Pittsburgh Penguins to the brink in the first round. I really believe there is a noticeable difference between the conferences right now as far as those traits are concerned.
So whoever makes it out of the West, you have to think they'll be the favorite when the Stanley Cup Final starts June 4.
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