Central #3 Chicago Blackhawks vs. Pacific #3 Los Angeles Kings: The fact that these two teams are meeting in the Conference Final is not a surprise. They played each other in the West Final last year and, despite the fact that they both finished third in their respective divisions, they are regarded (accurately) as two of the league’s best teams.
They are elite clubs, but, based on what occurred in the previous round, I think each can reach a higher level.
In the second round, the Blackhawks defeated the Minnesota Wild in six games. In previewing that series, I felt that the ‘Hawks would face a stiffer test from the Wild than they did in their first round matchup from last year, when Chicago dispatched the Wild in five games. But the ‘Hawks are the defending champs – and had gotten past a dangerous St. Louis team already in the first round – so I thought they’d prevail this year, too.
They did prevail, but it was an even closer series than I thought it would be. When the ‘Hawks are on their game, they’re winning the puck possession battle and outshooting the opposition. The games in this series didn’t follow that script, though. In Game One, the ‘Hawks were outshot, 32-22, including 17-3 in the second period. It took a couple of goals from Patrick Kane to break open a 2-2 tie in the third period. Despite a 4-1 win in Game Two, they managed only 22 shots. Then came a 19-shot performance in a 4-0 Game Three loss. Game Four saw the Wild outshoot the ‘Hawks, 31-20, and tie the series with a 4-2 triumph. Two nights later in Game Five, the clubs were tied at one in the third period before Jonathan Toews tallied the game-winner. And in Game Six, Kane netted the series winner in overtime as the ‘Hawks won again by a 2-1 margin. In none of the six games did the ‘Hawks eclipse 30 shots.
This isn’t meant to nitpick. Shot totals are only one part of a game’s narrative. The Blackhawks won – and deserved to win. Unlike many of the top players on Pittsburgh and Boston that didn’t have an impactful second round series, the ‘Hawks got crucial goals in the series from Kane and Toews. And while the games may have been close, the ‘Hawks found ways to win them. In three of their four victories, the ‘Hawks were tied in the third period or overtime – and then netted the eventual game-winner.
But I think Chicago can be better. The Wild showed that they are trending in the right direction and displayed terrific resiliency throughout the playoffs. They proved to be a formidable opponent. But the Kings are a different beast. And if the Blackhawks are going to get past Los Angeles, they’ll need to look more like themselves.
For the first five games of their seven-game series against Anaheim, the Kings didn’t look like themselves either. I picked LA to win in six games because I thought, in completing their first round comeback against San Jose, they’d hit their stride. Entering the second round, the Kings looked like a machine. They were playing suffocating defense, getting great goaltending and scoring goals in bunches. The Kings extended their win streak to six straight when they captured the first two games in Anaheim.
But from LA’s perspective, those first two games weren’t exactly textbook. Anaheim generated numerous scoring chances in Game One and was seconds away from a regulation win. LA avoided defeat when Marian Gaborik tied the score at two at 19:53 of the third and then added the game-winner in overtime. The Kings won Game Two, 3-1, which, based on the final score, looks like a typical LA playoff win. But Anaheim outplayed the Kings. The Ducks outshot LA, 37-17, including 15-4 in the third period.
Interestingly, the Ducks, despite winning Games 3 and 4 in LA, felt that they weren’t at their best in those games. The Kings outshot the Ducks in both contests and held Anaheim to just 14 total shots in Game Four. But Anaheim, in winning 3-2 and 2-0, scored three of their five goals on the power play and never trailed. That was also the case in Game Five. The Ducks broke the game open with three unanswered early second period goals. It was the kind of defensive leakiness one doesn’t often see from the Kings – and it hadn’t happened to them since early in the San Jose series.
So though five games, the Kings hadn’t yet put together a complete performance. Maybe part of that had to do with injury losses to defensemen Willie Mitchell (in the San Jose series) and Robin Regehr (in Game One versus Anaheim). But facing elimination for the fifth time this year, the Kings put it all together in Game Six. They edged the Ducks, 2-1, but more importantly, did an excellent job of limiting scoring chances. They played effectively with the lead and killed off all five Anaheim power plays.
In Game 7, the Kings thoroughly dominated the first half of the game and built a 5-0 lead. Even though the Ducks made a push late in the second and early in the third (eventually cutting the deficit to 5-2), goalie Jonathan Quick provided several key saves and the Kings improved to 6-0 in elimination games this year.
So like the ‘Hawks, the Kings can be better than they were through much of their second round series. They did finish that series with their best two games, though, so it’ll be interesting to see if they can maintain that level versus Chicago.
Does one team have an advantage? The ‘Hawks should be a bit fresher. They’ve played two fewer games so far in the playoffs and have home-ice advantage in the series. Also, the Kings are still without defensemen Mitchell and Regehr, though Mitchell has resumed skating with his teammates. For the Kings, as I mentioned earlier, they seemed to find their mojo late in the Anaheim series and have displayed a tough-as-nails mentality this postseason, especially in elimination games. And not having home ice shouldn’t affect them – they’ve gone 5-3 on the road this postseason, including a couple of Game Seven victories. Ultimately, this series may come down to which team can elevate its overall level from the last round – and maintain it.
It’s hard to pick against the defending champs, but I’m going to. There’s just something about the Kings this year. Maybe it’s because they’ve already overcome the odds of a 3-0 series deficit. Maybe it’s due to their 6-0 record in elimination games. Last year against Chicago in the Conference Final, they lost several close games. This year, I think they’ll win the tight ones. Prediction: Los Angeles in Seven.