And now the scene shifts westward with the Hawks taking a 2-0 series lead onto Figueroa Ave. Sunday’s Game 2 loomed large at the time, as the Kings have yet to lose on home ice this post season, and have won 14 straight at Staples. Based on that, this series is still far from over, as it could very well be tied heading into the weekend. Had the Kings taken one on United Center ice, this could very quickly have looked like an imminent 3-1 hole for the second straight series. But that, they say, is why they play the games.
For the hosting Kings, they will once again have to take the ice without center Mike Richards, who missed this morning’s skate and was declared out by coach Darryl Sutter. Richards’ has been the King’s leading scorer this playoff year (10 points), and has been the NHL’s leading scorer in the post-season since 2010 with 55 points. For a team that already possesses record-setting scoring woes with only 29 goals in 15 games so far, this does not bode well.
There is a small silver lining to Richards’ absence, and that was the production of the Kings’ makeshift second line of Jeff Carter flanked by rookie Tyler Toffoli and ambulatory International House of Pancakes franchise Dustin Penner, albeit when the game was already out of reach. The line scored both goals for LA on Sunday, including the first power play goal scored by the opposition at the United Center this spring. While Carter has played center before, he’s not a natural playmaker by any stretch of the imagination, and is notoriously very shoosty. Toffoli already has two goals in two career games against the Hawks, and has shown some nice finish himself. It will be Penner’s charge to clear out space for the two of them to fire away, and once again look for them to attempt to generate opportunities from below the goal line.
They’ll need to, because the Kings’ top line of Kopitar, Brown, and Williams has not yielded much. It’s pretty clear that Kopitar is fighting something, but if he’s given even an inch of leeway he still has the size, skill, and strength to return to form in a hurry, especially on home ice. If he does, Brown’s bowling ball act and Williams ability to get invisible in key scoring areas becomes far more dangerous and this series begins to take on a different complexion.
After sitting out Game 2 either as a result of the Stalberg hit (yes, you read that right), or as a result of getting completely submerged in his own end, it appears Jake Muzzin will rejoin the defensive corps tonight, with Alec Martinez left as the odd man out. With last change on home ice, expect Muzzin to be more of a factor, as prior to Game 1 he’d started 61% of his shifts in the offensive zone, and Sutter will have more control over that with last change.
In net, it would would be folly to expect that the Hawks have somehow rattled or solved Jonathan Quick. In his only other back-to-back appearance this year, he also surrendered five goals, with both of these incidents indicative of a still recovering back. But, this will still be the third game in four nights for Quick, with a cross country flight included in between. But once again the Kings, and Quick especially, have been as tight as a coat of paint at home, with a 1.14 GAA and a .958 save percentage, facing 27 shots at home, as opposed to nearly 31 on the road.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, the patience exhibited in Game 1 must be on full display tonight if not amplified. Though the Hawks jumped on the Kings early in Game 2, it seemed as though the puck support when breaking out had once again been abandoned for forwards flying the zone at the first hint of Hawks possession, leading to many a blind clearing attempt shot up the wall. With the building volatile early in tonight’s game, the Hawks simply cannot be that reckless and allow the Kings any signs of life with their waves of forechecking particularly with Mike Richards out. His absence gives the Kings one less creative dimension to their attack, leaving the primary method of simply catapulting themselves into the end boards and Hawk defensemen. Diffusing that will go a long way towards muting the hordes.
It will also be up to Joel Quenneville to respond to not having last change away from home for Games 3 and 4. For the majority of Games 1 and 2, Q did not hesitate to send the Toews line with Hossa and Bickell out against the Kopitar line for LA. But with Sutter having last change and his top line struggling, he may look to get them out against the likes of Andrew Shaw and Viktor Stalberg, and Quenneville will need to be judicious in his changes. Shaw might be a fiesty little fucker, but he’s still not ready for the responsibility of shutting down one of the games premiere centers, let alone one that has about 5 inches and 40 pounds on him. Were Dave Bolland alive, this would be an ideal spot for him to make things easier for Quennville. RIP.
For the Hawk blue line, they’ll need to fully gird their loins for this evening, as hell is absolutely coming to breakfast. With this being as close to a must-win for the Kings without literally being so and their crowd at their backs, the onslaught is coming, specifically into the corners of Leddy and Oduya. And one hopes Brent Seabrook has not already overdosed on nachos at the time of this writing, considering all of the fantastic Mexican food establishments LA has to offer. Corey Crawford will also need to stand tall early on as the Kings make their initial push. Crow has outdueled Quick to this point, and he’ll need to at least keep himself in the conversation for the Hawks to have any success with the expected bounce-back effort Quick should provide tonight.
There is a chance that the two games in Chicago are outliers to what the remainder of this series will be. The Kings had come off two very long series, the first of which was filled with flights halfway across the country against St. Louis, against far more physical opponents than the Hawks faced. And a back-to-back to kick things off only exacerbated those fatigue issues both due to the Hawks’ speed and to Jonathan Quick’s back woes. With the setting shifting to Staples, the Kings have more of an opportunity to dictate the tempo, the physical tone, and the matchups against the Hawks. In doing so they very well could ignite their powder keg of scoring that’s been dormant to this point this post season, even without Mike Richards. For the Hawks patience and persistence will be key tonight just as it had been in the first two games at home, particularly with an opportunity to take a kung-fu grip on the series. Tonight represents a potentially seismic shift in the series, and it’s never wise to let the defending champs up off the mat. Let’s go Hawks.