First impression of this year’s Western Conference Final? The Blackhawks would do well forget to last year’s Western Conference Final.
In Sunday’s opener at the United Center, there was little to separate the team coming off a long rest and the team dealing with a short sleep.
Though they lost, 3-1, the Los Angeles Kings did not appear sluggish, nor did they induce yawns, despite having earned this business trip to Chicago two time zones away only late Friday night.
Indeed, the Kings looked like they had not been forced to leave the state of California since the Stanley Cup Playoffs commenced, and had avoided airplanes altogether for an entire seven-game series leading to this one. It was the Blackhawks who have been nightcrawlers, with puck drops at 8:45 and runway landings at 1 or 2 in the morning.
As a result, Game 1 was worth your undivided attention, because both sides were vested in the outcome. Receiving the unofficial first star for emotion was head coach Joel Quenneville, who acted as though someone stole all his frequent flyer miles and kidnapped his horse Midnight Hawk after the Blackhawks lost a goal they thought they had scored fair and square.
It was 1-0 when Jonathan Toews took a hard left with puck in tow toward Jonathan Quick early in the second period. The Blackhawks’ captain and the Kings’ world-class netminder bumped. Meanwhile, the rubber disk with a mind of its own entered the game off Slava Voynov’s skate. A red-clad gathering of 21,832 greeted a huge moment appropriately, only to discover that officials, upon huddling, ruled that Toews made incidental contact with Quick.
“No comment,” growled Coach Q, much later. According to National Hockey League law, such a play is not reviewable. But according to NHL authorities on hand, the play was never reviewed. Just because one referee signaled the puck found the net did not mean it counted, not when the other referee had cited Toews for invading Quick’s space.
At this juncture, Quenneville had all sorts of comments, and his disposition deteriorated when the Kings tied it 1-1 only a minute or so later on one of 17 second-period shots against Corey Crawford. The situation for the Blackhawks also could have regressed except that Crawford was exceptional once again, out-dueling a more famous masked man. This is not a news flash.
Midway in the second, Duncan Keith’s drive grazed a visiting stick and flew like a Frisbee over Quick. Tyler Toffoli, the Kings’ lone scorer, sashayed in on Crawford early in the third, but his backhander kissed the post. A tight taffy pull, not especially physical, persisted until Toews capped a three-on-one to secure the Blackhawks’ home unbeaten streak (7-0) this postseason.
Traffic is always a strategic ploy, but renting space before the opposing net is like college. It’s one thing to go, and it’s another to stay there.
The Kings are better and healthier than a year ago, when they bowed 4-1 in this same bracket. They are large and leery, which is why Brandon Saad’s power play goal stood out on an afternoon when he played well at either end, foiling Trevor Lewis on a dangerous rush and setting up Keith's winner with a cross-ice pass. Nick Leddy fired from the left, and Saad tipped it for a 1-0 advantage just as the penalty was about to expire.
Traffic is always a strategic ploy, but renting space before the opposing net is like college. It’s one thing to go there, and it’s another to stay there. The spirit has to be willing, but so does the body. Size doesn’t matter (see: Andrew Shaw). It’s the desire to precipitate chaos, even if it hurts.
“You try to take away the goalie’s eyes,” said Saad. “Maybe you can peek when your back is to him, and see where he is. But the main thing is to try to keep yourself in position to make something happen, even when they’re trying to move you out of there. It’s not like you just skate to the front of the net and never see anybody.”
The Blackhawks and Kings will see each other again Wednesday night. Nobody will be rusty. Nobody will be tired.