CHICAGO -- Before this rematch of the 2013 Western Conference Final began, defenseman Drew Doughty provided a pretty good summation of why his team has closed the gap on the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, who eliminated his Los Angeles Kings in five games last spring.
Doughty mentioned the improvement of his partner Jake Muzzin, the advancement into regular roles of rookies Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson and NHL Trade Deadline acquisition Marian Gaborik. It was a well-reasoned answer, and the Kings may very well have enough to topple the defending champs.
Game 1 of the 2014 Western Conference Final provided a glimpse of why the Blackhawks are slightly different from last season as well. The roster is full of largely the same players, but Brandon Saad has made significant strides during his sophomore season in the NHL.
Saad had a goal and an assist Sunday afternoon to help the Blackhawks fend off the Kings in a 3-1 victory at United Center and take a 1-0 lead in this series. Duncan Keith and Jonathan Toews also scored and goaltender Corey Crawford made 25 saves.
The Blackhawks improved to 7-0 in this postseason at United Center. Game 2 will be played here Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN, RDS).
"Yeah, home ice is big, especially Game 1 with two tough teams," Saad said. "It's going to be a long series, and you want to take care of your home games. [Sunday] was huge for us."
It was a tightly-contested contest, just as Game 1 of the conference finals was last year when the Blackhawks prevailed 2-1 in this building.
Chicago controlled the early moments, possibly in part because Los Angeles had played twice since the Blackhawks' most-recent game, including two nights before against the Anaheim Ducks. The Kings responded after falling behind by a goal and carried the play for stretches, but squandered a couple of key opportunities.
"I think we played fairly well, but I think you have to play great to beat a good hockey club over there," said Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell, who was a surprise inclusion in the lineup after missing the past eight games with a lower-body injury. "We turned a few pucks over. They're a great rush team and they make you pay, and they did that today. I think we have to clean that up and don't make those turnovers in the neutral zone and don't allow those rush chances, which they're great at."
Saad put the Blackhawks in front with a power-play goal at 14:46 of the opening period. After Brandon Bollig drew a post-whistle penalty on Kings defenseman Alec Martinez, the Blackhawks were able to keep the puck in the offensive zone for nearly the entire two minutes before Saad directed a Nick Leddy point shot past Quick two seconds before Martinez was set to be released from the box.
Keith gave the Blackhawks a 2-1 lead at 8:06 of the second period. His shot from the left point deflected off the stick of Kings forward Trevor Lewis and past Jonathan Quick before the Los Angeles goaltender could find it.
It was the first goal for a Blackhawks defensemen since the opening round. The play started with a turnover in the neutral zone by the Kings, and eventually Saad sent a diagonal pass from the right corner to Keith.
"It helps," Keith said when asked about scoring from the defense corps. "There are five guys on the ice, so there's no reason why five guys can't be in on the play."
Two of those players Doughty was talking about Saturday tied the score at 1-1. Shortly after a disallowed goal by Toews, rookies Pearson and Toffoli hooked up for a pretty score at 4:35 of the second.
Pearson carried the puck toward the left corner and sent it to the top of the crease, where Toffoli beat Bollig to the spot and chipped one past Crawford. It was Toffoli's fourth goal of the postseason and Pearson's fifth assist.
Los Angeles was looking for a tying goal, but Chicago struck on a beautiful counterattack for an insurance goal with 3:50 remaining in the third period. Toews finished a 3-on-1 with a one-timer from defenseman Johnny Oduya.
"We had a chance," Kings forward Mike Richards said. "We shot ourselves in the foot a bit on their goals. Give them credit, they're an opportunistic team. We made a couple mistakes and they ended up in our net."
Toews had a goal disallowed at 3:22 of the second period. The original call on the ice was the goal was good, but a discussion between the on-ice officials resulted in a no-goal decision because Toews made incidental contact with Quick before the puck crossed the goal line. It was not a reviewable play and the decision on the ice stood.
"[We were] just trying to forget about it, not get too worked up about a call that didn't go our way," Toews said. "To add insult to injury, they came right back to score to tie it up not too long after. That's where we did a good job of just forgetting about what happened, moving on, focusing on our game, not getting away from them."
Chicago is back in the Western Conference Final for the fourth time in six years. This is the third straight trip to the conference finals for the Kings, who won the Cup in 2012 and had their chance at a repeat ruined by the Blackhawks.
"I think we're good enough," Toffoli said. "I don't think we need to back down. We need to keep pushing the pace, keep playing hard. Like I said, we got to win Game 2 and go back to Staples [Center] and just keep playing well."