CHICAGO -- The Chicago Blackhawks began this season the way the Los Angeles Kings finished the previous one.
Los Angeles steamrolled opponents in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, taking a 3-0 lead in each of its four series en route to a 16-4 record and the first championship in team history. Chicago followed the Kings’ record-breaking postseason with an historic start to the 2012-13 season, going 24 games (21-0-3) without a regulation loss.
Now these two teams, the past two NHL champions to hail from their conference, will meet for the right to play for the Cup again in the Western Conference Final. Chicago is 6-1 at home this postseason, while Los Angeles is 1-5 away from Staples Center.
Game 1 is Saturday at United Center (5 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TSN, RDS), and Game 2 is the following evening. Here are five areas to pay close attention to in Game 1:
1. The area in front of Jonathan Quick
Detroit Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard nearly knocked the Blackhawks out of the playoffs with brilliant play in Games 2, 3 and 4 of the Western Conference Semifinals before chicago rallied to win the series. Now all the Blackhawks have to do is replicate their success in the final three games of that series against the best goalie on the planet.
How the Blackhawks scored on Howard -- deflections in front of the net, rebounds, through traffic, etc. -- is not reinventing the wheel in hockey terms. But doing those things will be extra critical against Jonathan Quick. If the Blackhawks don’t make life miserable for Quick in and around the blue paint, he will knock them out.
2. The neutral zone
Los Angeles coach Darryl Sutter pointed out Friday that Chicago’s team is just as big as his when the average heights and weights are compared. That said, there’s no doubt the Kings play a more physical brand of hockey and will be looking to slow down the game.
The best way to do that against the Blackhawks is to prevent them from navigating through the neutral zone, whether it is with the puck or with a couple of well-placed passes. Detroit was able to do this for a few games, and Chicago resorted to long stretch passes when they got frustrated. Los Angeles will be looking to turn over Chicago in the neutral zone, then throw the puck back in the Blackhawks’ end ...
3. The boards behind Corey Crawford
... where the Kings forwards will look to punish the Blackhawks. Chicago’s defensemen are going to have to move the puck quickly, and they’re probably going to have to endure plenty of bumps bruises to make the right decisions.
Los Angeles will build possession from wearing out opposing defensemen and forcing them into turnovers. If the Kings forwards are nailing Blackhawks defensemen behind Crawford early, it could be a long afternoon for Chicago.
4. The faceoff circle
These teams like to have the puck, and were the two best teams at possessing it in even-strength situations when the score was tied or there was a one-goal lead or deficit in the regular season. However, neither team has been very good at starting with the puck in this postseason.
Los Angeles was the fourth-best faceoff team in the League during the regular season at 52.0 percent, and Chicago was tied for 10th at 50.8. However, the Blackhawks and Kings have been two of the worst teams in the playoffs at winning faceoffs, checking in at 13th and 14th, at less than 48 percent. Not having Jarrett Stoll (56.0 percent in the regular season) has put a crimp in the Kings' puck-possession game.
5. The penalty box
A lot of questions for Blackhawks players and coach Joel Quenneville on Friday were in reference to the Kings’ physical play. Quenneville was quick to point out that his team needs to remain disciplined. He doesn’t want his players trying to match hits with the Kings if that means taking unnecessary penalties.
Each of the teams has been better at killing penalties than making opponents pay for taking them, though Los Angeles is at 20 percent (7-for-35) on the power play -- a big improvement from last spring. Chicago has allowed one power-play goal on 41 attempts through two rounds, by far the best in the League.
Author: Corey Masisak | NHL.com Staff Writer