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Five reasons Blackhawks advanced to Cup Final

by Brian Hedger

CHICAGO -- It ended in five games, but the Chicago Blackhawks' victory against the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference Final was anything but easy.

It was a hard, physical series for both teams -- who each came into it after seven-game thrillers in the conference semifinals. Chicago, however, won by doing exactly what the Blackhawks have done all season long. They came after the defending Stanley Cup champions in waves in all but the one game they lost, and eventually proved that L.A. goalie Jonathan Quick is human.

Outside of Game 3 at Staples Center, the Blackhawks never really gave Quick a chance to breathe and eventually snuffed out the Kings' hopes for becoming the first team since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998 to win the Cup in back-to-back seasons.

Here are five key reasons the Blackhawks are heading into their second Stanley Cup Final in the past four seasons, after winning it all in 2010:

1. They held serve

The Blackhawks were the best team in the NHL all season long, plain and simple.

Their reward for such a special regular season, aside from winning the Presidents' Trophy with a whopping 77 points in 48 games, was home-ice advantage throughout their run in the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs. In recent years, home ice hasn't really mattered all that much. In these playoffs, it's been a huge advantage in just about every series across both conferences.

Home teams in this postseason are 56-24 (.700), which is one win short of the NHL record for most wins by home teams in one playoff season (57) -- which was set in 92 games of the 1991 Stanley Cup Playoffs (.620). Further, the last time home teams churned out a winning percentage of at least .600 was in 1993, going 52-33 (.612).

Chicago also found the out the hard way what losing home ice can do, when Detroit took Game 2 at United Center in the conference semifinals and promptly turned it into a 3-1 series lead. In the West Final, the Blackhawks didn't get caught napping at "The Madhouse on Madison."

They won the first two games on home ice -- on back-to-back nights -- and then took one of two at Staples Center to set up the series-clinching Game 5 win at home in double overtime Saturday. The Kings, meanwhile, hadn't lost at home in the playoffs until dropping Game 4 and went just 1-8 on the road.

2. 'Hawks went 'rolling in the deep'

The Kings found out firsthand what every single team in the West found out the hard way this season -- the Blackhawks have the deepest roster in the NHL from top to bottom.

They have more star players than almost every other team, but their role players have been just as important to the cause. That goes for the blue line, in net and up front -- where Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville usually has the luxury of rolling four lines every night.

The fourth game of this series proved it. The Blackhawks won to take a 3-1 series lead despite losing their top defenseman, Duncan Keith, to a one-game suspension stemming from a Game 3 retaliation incident involving Jeff Carter.

Conversely, the Kings lost star center Mike Richards for three games to an upper-body injury caused by a hit from Dave Bolland late in Game 1 and weren't the same team at either end of the ice. In net, Corey Crawford's been outstanding in all three series thus far -- but if an injury happens, Ray Emery is the backup option after putting up his own outstanding numbers in the regular season.

Chicago's depth has also taken much of the pressure off its top stars and allowed the Blackhawks to keep scoring even on nights that guys like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp or Marian Hossa are taken away.

3. The stars shined bright

After receiving a lot of heat for "being invisible" in the Game 3 loss at Staple Center, Kane came up huge in the final two games to close out the series.

After "stealing" a goal from Bryan Bickell by tipping home a puck that was already bound for the back of the net in Game 4 -- a Blackhawks win -- Kane recorded the second postseason hat trick of his career in Game 5 to lead the way to victory.

All three of his goals were beauties, too, with the game-winner -- scored 11:40 into the second overtime -- capping off a 2-on-1 rush in style with a one-time blast after a nice pass from Toews. After scoring just three goals in 28 playoff games prior to Game 4, Kane scored four goals in the last two contests and was not alone among Chicago stars that came up big to beat the Kings.

Sharp and Hossa scored the goals in a 2-1 victory to start the series, while Toews finished with three assists against the Kings -- two in the deciding game. Brent Seabrook scored a goal in Game 2, Keith added a goal to start the scoring in Game 5 and Sharp tallied two assists in the second game.

4. Big 'Bicks' was 'tutu' much

Bickell has gone from a solid, grinding, third-line regular with a hard shot to the 2013 Blackhawks' version of Dustin Byfuglien in just one playoff run.

It's not just because of his dad's revelation to a columnist that he started as a figure skater, either -- with a picture of him in a tutu to prove it. Bickell has eight goals and five assists in these playoffs and is emerging into the force at power forward that Quenneville had imagined him becoming.

He couldn't have picked a better time to do it. Not only is Bickell set to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, but his 6-foot-4, 233-pound presence on the top line gave the Kings fits all series long and helped pave the way to a berth in the Stanley Cup Final.

Bickell scored three goals and added four assists in the five games, including goals in three consecutive games -- the second, third and fourth. He also came up with a big play behind the net late in the third period of Game 5 to find Kane for a snap shot that would've won the series had it not been for L.A. tying the game with 9.4 seconds left in regulation.

5. As the 'Crow' flies, so do the Blackhawks

Inexplicably, there are a still a number of Blackhawks fans who say Crawford worries them with a propensity to allow soft goals.

The facts tell a much different story. Crawford, like many goalies, does give up the occasional "softie" but unlike many goalies he doesn't let them bother him anymore. Instead of melting down, the intensely-focused Crawford just resets himself mentally and moves past the bad ones.

And, truth be told, there aren't many bad ones to move past.

Aside from Bickell, you could make an argument that Crawford is the Blackhawks' most valuable player in these playoffs thus far. He's leading all goalies in the postseason with a 1.74 goals-against average and is second in save percentage (.935) to only the .943 of Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask.

The Blackhawks also have the top-ranked penalty kill rate in the playoffs to date (94.8 percent), and Crawford is a huge reason why. He gets a lot of help from the defense played in front of him, but Crawford pays them back by bailing them out more often than not.

The Minnesota Wild, Red Wings and Kings can all attest.

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