CHICAGO – This was the team that racked up 77 points in a 48-game regular season and basically sewed up the Presidents' Trophy before anybody else had a realistic chance to catch them.
This was the lightning quick, relentless version of the Chicago Blackhawks that gave the Western Conference fits from start to finish – earning home ice throughout the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs and casting them in the favorite's role in the chase for the silver chalice.
It might not have shown in the middle of a tough Western Conference Semifinal series against the rival Detroit Red Wings, but Chicago's wealth of skill, speed, grit and determination was on full display Sunday night at United Center. A night after grinding out a 2-1 win in the first game of the conference final, the Blackhawks steamrolled the Los Angeles Kings by running out to a 4-0 lead and then finishing it off with a 4-2 win.
"When we're rolling four lines, keeping [shifts] short and rolling hard, I think we have a great hockey team and a great pace in our game," said Blackhawks forward Bryan Bickell, after scoring his sixth goal of the playoffs and continuing to be a force up front. "When we do that we have confidence, I know it wears their [defense] down and their forwards … and it's fun to be a part of."
In other words, the Blackhawks did exactly what they did all regular season. They came into back-to-back contests this weekend and left victorious, which they did 10 out of 12 times in the second game prior to the postseason.
Aside from more stifling defense and strong goaltending by Corey Crawford, Chicago got goals from its second line, third line, second power-play unit and defenseman Brent Seabrook's marker late in the first that made it 2-0 with the first line on the ice.
"It's huge, especially back-to-back nights, being able to roll four lines and keep it up," said rookie left wing Brandon Saad, who tallied a pair of assists and looks better each game bringing extra juice to a productive third line. "I think it helps out the team a lot to stay fresh. You see other teams when they play their top lines big minutes, it's tough to play back-to-back in as many games as we play in a short period of time here."
Center Andrew Shaw, who beat Kings star goalie Jonathan Quick just 1:56 into the game with a pretty wrist shot, said that balanced ice time leads to the balanced scoring. All told, it just grinds opponents down until there isn't much resistance left in them.
It also takes a heap of pressure off the shoulders of stars like Patrick Kane and captain Jonathan Toews – neither of whom is scoring in bunches yet in the postseason. Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa are producing points in bunches, but the scary part is that Toews, Kane and others could get hot at any moment to really make the Blackhawks a force.
They're already doing the so-called "little things," that lead to goals, but how tough will Chicago be if they start scoring too?
"It's nice," Shaw said. "Your first and second lines aren't out there all the time, draining them game in and game out. We kind of share the wealth and keep four lines going and we're going to be good doing that."
Truth be told, they were good doing that all season. The Kings, who played this game without center Mike Richards (upper-body injury), had already seen it first-hand in all three games they played against Chicago during the regular season. They saw this version of the Blackhawks a couple of times, in fact, but the first meeting – a 5-2 Chicago rout – was blown off because it was the season opener for both teams at Staples Center.
Quick was also playing for the first time since off-season back surgery. Coming into this series, he was depicted as unbeatable – until Sunday.
The second time Chicago and Los Angeles met was similar to Game 1 of this series, with the Blackhawks gritting out a 3-2 win at home to cap an interesting game. The Kings then won the third game 5-4, but Quick let in all four goals.
Sunday, he was beaten four more times and there was still half the game left to play. He was chased after Michal Handzus beat him with an unscreened, uncontested wrister at 9:20 of the second period and once again the power of this balanced Blackhawks team started to show.
They wear on opponents, especially when given free run up the ice through the neutral zone. They hound the puck until they get it, then hold it for long stretches and eventually score goals. The only time the Blackhawks seem to release the gas pedal when they're rolling like they did Sunday, is after they've already built a seemingly insurmountable lead.
Even that little bad habit annoys them. They're hoping to fix that part in the upcoming games at Staples Center and play a full game like they've played most of the first two contests.
"I thought the first two periods we played great," Kane said after picking up an assist on the Handzus goal. "I don't know why we changed the way we were playing in the third period, because it was a great first two periods and we were taking it to them. I think we've got to keep that going through the full 60 minutes, especially when you're playing like that."
They didn't get to play like that very much against the Red Wings, who did a better job of slowing the Blackhawks down through the neutral zone in the middle three games of that series. It frustrated the Blackhawks and pushed Chicago to the brink of elimination, down 3-1 after four games.
"It did [work]," Shaw said of the Red Wings' slow-down tactics. "And then we found a way to beat it."
They found their Zen, in other words – their balance, grit and exactly what makes them such a dangerous opponent.