Yesterday, I previewed the Eastern Conference Finals. Today, it’s the West.
Western Conference Finals - #1 Chicago Blackhawks vs. #5 Los Angeles Kings:
In the East, the two best teams are playing in the Conference Finals. In this series, two of the best teams are squaring off. Perhaps it’s a testament to the depth in the West, but the ‘Hawks and Kings both needed seven games to advance past, respectively, the Red Wings and Sharks. All four of those teams easily could have represented the West this year in the Stanley Cup Finals. So unlike the Penguins and Bruins, who essentially cruised through the second round, the Blackhawks and Kings will square off immediately after eking out hard-fought, closely-contested series wins.
When the Blackhawks won Game Seven against Detroit, there was talk about how Chicago would benefit from the adversity they faced in that series. After all, Chicago , after starting the year with a 24-game point streak, faced few bumps during the regular season. Against Detroit, however, the ‘Hawks had to erase a 3-1 series deficit and in Game Six, needed to rally from 2-1 down heading into the third period. Then there was the excruciating disallowed goal late in the third period of Game Seven, a call that could have swung momentum to Detroit’s side heading into overtime. That the ‘Hawks overcame all those obstacles led some to comment that the Detroit series could help them deal with adversity later in the playoffs.
But most of these ‘Hawks have been through adversity before. During their 2010 Cup run, Chicago had some close calls, both within games and series. Following the win in Game Seven on Wednesday, Chicago forward Patrick Sharp referenced Game Six in the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals, when the ‘Hawks saw the Flyers tie the game late in regulation. Then Patrick Kane won the game, series and Cup with an overtime goal.
In 2011, the Blackhawks, as the eighth seed, trailed the top-seeded Vancouver Canucks, three games to none, in their first round series. Chicago rattled off three straight wins, then tied Game Seven late in the third period with a shorthanded goal. The Canucks eventually won the game in OT, but the ‘Hawks showed a lot of resiliency in that series.
So this is a Chicago team that is not only loaded with talent and well-structured, but also mentally tough. I felt their comeback in the Detroit series revealed, rather than created, that toughness.
“Tough” might be the best word to describe the defending Stanley Cup champs, the Los Angeles Kings. Physically, they are tough, always finishing their checks. They are tough to score against, because they play so well as a team and, with Jonathan Quick, they have one of the top goalies in the game. They are also mentally tough, content to grind out wins in low-scoring games, knowing that often it’s the other team to make a critical mistake at a crucial time. And, of course, they are playing with the swagger of being the defending Cup champs.
So what factors will determine the winner? I think there are some trends to look at as the series progresses. Quick is going to give his team a chance to win every night. Can Chicago netminder Corey Crawford do the same? In losing three consecutive games to Detroit, the ‘Hawks only scored two total goals. Can they avoid such droughts against the Kings, who are stingier defensively than the Red Wings? The Kings haven’t been scoring much this postseason as a whole. If Chicago can get production from its top offensive players, can the Kings match it? And while Los Angeles went 10-1 on the road during the 2012 post-season, the Kings are just 1-5 on the road this year in the playoffs. They’ll need at least one win in Chicago – can they turn their road fortunes around?
A coin toss might be the best way to pick a winner in this one. But my gut tells me the Blackhawks will find a way to get just enough pucks past Quick. Prediction: Chicago in Seven.