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Blackhawks vs. Kings: Western Conference final X-factors
There’s no blood feud between these two teams, no long-simmering hatred. And there’s no plucky underdog here, no hungry upstart team too young to know any better. No, this Western Conference final simply pits the last two Stanley Cup champions against each other.
Two playoff-tested, elite goalies in Jonathan Quick and Corey Crawford.
Two of the best two-way centers in the world in Jonathan Toews and Anze Kopitar.
Two Norris Trophy-caliber, puck-moving defensemen in Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty.
Two confident, almost arrogant (in the best way) teams loaded with experience, savvy, talent and depth.
They were the fifth- and sixth-best teams in the Western Conference, according to the standings. Yet nobody’s surprised to see them as the last two standing, fighting for a chance to play for the Stanley Cup.
Here are five X-factors that could decide what should be another rollicking, riveting series.
Yes, Quick is a mere 6-12-1 against the Hawks in his career. Yes, he had a .897 save percentage in the Western Conference final last spring. Yes, he gave up 16 goals against San Jose in the first three games of the playoffs this year. Doesn’t matter. He’s still Jonathan Quick, a Stanley Cup champion and Conn Smythe winner. And when he’s hot, he’s nearly unbeatable.
Perhaps no goalie in the league covers the bottom of the net better than Quick. It’ll be up to the Hawks to shoot high, and to create the kind of traffic in front of the net that they weren’t able to create against the Wild. And they’ll probably have to do it without the injured Andrew Shaw (who again missed practice on Saturday) for at least another game or two.
Of course, the guy the Hawks have in net has been pretty good in the playoffs, too. Crawford is tied with Quick for fourth all-time in postseason save percentage (.926) among goalies with at least 40 games played. Goals will be at a premium.
The Ducks and Avalanche were the two best teams in the Western Conference standings. But the Kings and Hawks were the two best teams in the NHL, according to the advanced stats that measure puck possession, particularly in 5-on-5 play with the score close. Assuming the goalies cancel each other out, whichever team can come closest to matching its usual puck-possession level should come out on top.
They’re not terribly similar teams, though. The Hawks are built around speed and skill, loaded with talented wings. The Kings are the league’s most physical team, averaging nearly 32 hits per game, and are stacked up the middle, with Selke finalist Kopitar (19 points in 14 games), Jeff Carter and Mike Richards leading the way.
The Kings averaged just 2.5 goals per game during the regular season, while the Hawks had a conference-best 3.3. Like the Wild did, the Kings will try to slow down the Hawks in the neutral zone and force them to play chip-and-chase, to try to limit scoring chances. But while the Kings are defensive-minded, they’re not offensively inept. The addition of Marian Gaborik at the trade deadline has been a game-changer for L.A. — he has a league-high nine goals and six assists in 14 playoff games.
Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp have put more shots on goal than any other Hawks players, yet they have only two goals each. Considering their regular season shooting percentages were more than twice as high as their current postseason percentages, a regression to the mean — in other words, a bunch of goals — could be inevitable.
It happened for Patrick Kane in the Western Conference final last year; after scoring just twice in the first 15 playoff games, he had four in the last two games against the Kings, including a hat trick and the overtime winner in Game 5. Considering both Kane and Toews have been finding the back of the net during these playoffs, if Sharp and/or Hossa start scoring, too, the Hawks will be tough to beat.
Last spring, the Hawks beat the Kings in five games, but the Kings were a team devastated by injuries — including a torn PCL for Dustin Brown and a shoulder separation for Justin Williams (both played) — after a bone-crunching first-round series against St. Louis. This year, the Kings’ injury problems are on the back end. Robyn Regehr hasn’t played since suffering an injury in Game 1 vs. Anaheim, and Willie Mitchell hasn’t played since Game 6 of the San Jose series. Mitchell appears close to returning, and not a moment too soon, as the Kings have struggled when their top pairing of Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin aren’t on the ice.
The Hawks came through their series with St. Louis surprisingly well, and Shaw is expected back sometime during the series.
There’s no streakier team in the league than the Kings. They have winning streaks of 3, 5, 4, 6, 8, 6 and 6 this season. And they have losing streaks of 5, 5, 4, 3, 3 and 3. In these playoffs alone, they lost their first three, won their next six, lost their next three, and have currently won two straight. Before you figure that means an inevitable sweep, consider the Hawks have lost two, won six, lost two, and have currently won two straight in this postseason. They can’t both win the next four, so something’s got to give.
Also, the Kings are now 6-0 this postseason in games in which they could have been eliminated. The Hawks are 12-2 in potential clinchers in the Jonathan Toews/Patrick Kane era. It’s the killers against the unkillable.
Oh, and the Hawks would be wise to avoid a Game 7. Sure, they’d have home-ice advantage, but you don’t want to face the Kings in a Game 7. They’ve already won two this postseason (both on the road) — though, no team ever has advanced to the Stanley Cup Final after playing seven-game series in each of the first two rounds. In fact, Richards, Gaborik and Williams are now each 6-0 in Game 7s, with Williams — “Mr. Game 7” — posting six goals in those six games. The six players who scored against Anaheim on Friday night are now a combined 27-0 in Game 7s.
Prediction: It’s two outstanding teams with championship experience — a true toss-up. Either team can certainly win. But toss-ups tend to go seven, and you don’t pick against the Kings in Game 7. Kings in 7.