In the next of a series of seemingly preordained matchups in the West, the Kings and Blackhawks will meet for the first time since 1974 in the post season for the right to ignore the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl. Both of these teams have been on similar trajectories after bottoming out in the middle of the previous decade, and already have their names etched in silver recently (as you might have heard). And though this is the first meeting between these iterations of these two teams of consequence, it hardly feels like it will be the last.
For the defending Stanley Cup champion Kings, they enter this Western Conference Final having needed 7 games to dispatch their division rival San Jose Sharks, with the home team taking every game of not just the playoff series, but the season series. And that’s been the contrast of this Kings team for the majority of the year. At present, their home winning streak sits at 13 games dating back to the regular season, and were 19-4-1 at Staples during that time. Conversely, in this post season the Kings are a meager 1-5 on the road after going 8-12-4 away from Figueroa in the season. One of those wins, however, was one of only three regulation losses the Hawks incurred at the UC.
To this point in the post season, the formula for the Kings has been similar if not as dominating (at least away from the crease). As was detailed yesterday, they’re only halfway through the post-season meat grinder and have already given up as many power play goals as they did all of last year with 6, and zero shorthanded goals to the 5 they took last year. Counterbalancing that, however, is an actual competent power play at 20% (7 of 35), which seems downright world-beating after last year’s 12.8%.
Pacing the Kings in scoring is Mike Richards with 10 points, and four of those (1G and 3A) on the power play. Not far behind is fellow party boy Jeff Carter with 8 points and a team leading 5 goals. That these two are leading the team in scoring should be evidence that the teams they’ve faced to this point, specifically the Sharks, haven’t had the defensive depth to keep these two in check while the primary pairing focuses on cyborg Anze Kopitar and cannonball Dustin Brown and the sneaky Justin Williams on the top line. Kopitar still has 7 points, but they have been much harder to come by for him this spring than last. Exacerbating that is the absence of Jarret Stoll, who has been out since part way through Game 1 against the Sharks after getting Raffi’d, and it’s unclear whether he’ll be in the lineup today, but it’d certainly be surprising if he were. Stoll has been aces at the dot his entire career, and his absence has forced Kopitar to take more defensive draws because the team as a whole is struggling in that facet of the game, and it’s affected Kopitar’s offense.
On the Kings’ blue line, there is balance up and down the three pairs. Drew Doughty spearheads the attack from the top pair, and is certainly far from inept in his own end. Slava Voynov and Jake Muzzin provide offensive flair from the second and third pairs respectively, though their zone starts are fairly sheltered, with both starting well over half of the time in the offensive zone. They’re partnered by the brute physicality of Robyn Regehr, Rob Scuderi, and Matt Greene from pairings one through three. Regehr and Scuds have had a rough go of it in the Corsi department, which has caused the Kings to allow 2.4 shots more per game than last year, as they got routinely outshot by the Sharks.
Of course, the effect of allowing those excess shots has been negligible, as Jonathan Quick is posting better numbers than he did in his record setting Conn Smythe run last year, with an unholy 1.50 GAA and .948 save percentage. I think it’s safe to say that his back has healed just fine after some early and mid-season hiccups. This is a bad, bad man, and the Hawks cannot allow frustration to boil over when they’re consistently robbed of chances.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, the journey continues after finally dispatching of Scum and sending them to their beloved Eastern Conference. It took far longer than likely should have been necessary, both in the series and in Game 7 itself, and now their reward is facing the defending champions whose style of play is of the sharpest contrast imaginable.
What the Kings do is no secret as it was on full display last April through June. They will grind your bones with forechecking to make their bread. Hawk defensemen will be forced into making decisions far faster than they will want to lest their skulls be used as squeegies on the glass behind the net. Blindly firing the puck up the boards will only lead to prolonged zone time for the Kings, so reversals and puck support when breaking out are as imperative as it gets. Pay close attention to Johnny Oduya, who has had the yips for a couple of straight games now.
The first period of this game should reveal the matchups Joel Quenneville is going to seek at home, and whether he’ll try to get Toews away from Kopitar. There’s some pretty fun documentation from a couple years ago to suggest that putting Mike Richards out there against Toews regularly ends badly for Richards, so it’d be a surprise to see Sutter toss he and Carter out there. Sutter is not known for his skills as a tactician or being overly matchup hungry, so this is one series wherein Quenneville could find the looks that he wants. Whatever the case is, expect Keith and Seabrook to be out on the ice against Kopitar at any given moment even in spite of Seabrook’s nacho and Cinnabon addictions.
This will all take place in front of Corey Crawford for the Hawks, whose numbers actually rival Quick’s at 1.70 goals against and a .935 save percentage, but you’d never gather that from listening to anyone in the 300 level, or even watching him at times. But Crawford will need to be consistently strong this series and cannot allow some of the turds he has in his 12 games so far, because the dam at the other end of the ice is certainly not going to break.
These two teams are as contrasting in styles as can be imagined, and the Hawks will need to exhibit extreme amounts of patience in every facet of their game. Defensemen will need to be patient with the puck as silver-and-black clad missiles come hurtling into them behind the goal line, and Hawk shooters will need to be patient with Quick at the other end, waiting perhaps a fraction of a second longer for him to provide an opening. The Kings are deep and physically brutal, but they’ve yet to face a team that’s as complete top to bottom in their six consecutive playoff series wins as the Hawks. And while their blueline is balanced and physically punishing, there will be room to the outside against some of their less-fleet defensemen. For third party fans and observers, this is going to be a fantastic matchup to watch. For vested parties, it’s going to be a nightmare. Let’s go Hawks.