By Adam Hoge-
UNITED CENTER (CBS) A healthy Jonathan Quick with his fanny on the bench.
Not exactly a scene anyone thought they would see when the Western Conference Finals began.
But that’s exactly where the Blackhawks put Quick Sunday night after building a 4-0 lead 9:20 into the second period. From there, the Hawks’ used their defense and goaltending to finish off a 4-2 win and take a quick 2-0 series lead on the Los Angeles Kings.
Yes, through two games of the Western Conference Finals, the better goaltender is the one in the red sweater.
“He’s awesome,” Patrick Sharp said about Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford, who made 29 saves Sunday. “Been answering questions all year about Corey, if he’s the No. 1 guy, if he can do it. Said the same answer all along. There’s no question in our locker room. He’s the guy we want in net back there.”
Before the series began with the Kings, Crawford was not shy about his desire to compete directly against Quick.
“I want to beat him,” Crawford said.
And those same words were echoed again Sunday night after the Blackhawks goaltender got his second win in two days against Quick and the Kings.
Fans in Los Angeles will likely panic about their superstar goaltender getting pulled in the second period, but the longterm effect on the series will be determined by how Quick handles it. Compared to any average goaltender, he did not have a horrible night. The goals allowed were ones Quick usually stops but none of them were particularly soft. Down 4-0, Kings head coach Darryl Sutter likely figured he might as well get his goaltender focused on rebounding in Game 3 as Quick remains the Kings’ best chance to hang around in this series.
“We play five games in 10 days,” Sutter said about the move.
Not if Quick doesn’t bounce back strong. If his confidence takes a hit at all, then the next hockey game at the United Center will be Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.
But given that the Kings have won 14 games in a row at home dating back to the regular season, the Blackhawks will be fine if they just get one win in Los Angeles. The eyes don’t lie: The team in red is playing at a much higher level than the team in black. The Detroit Red Wings poked the bear when they put the Blackhawks down 3-1 and a different team has showed up ever since.
“I think Detroit was a wakeup call,” Blackhawks winger Brandon Saad, who had two assists Sunday, said.
Through two games, the Kings haven’t shown any kind of ability to keep up with these Hawks, especially when they try to play like them. Sunday night the Kings tried to skate with the Blackhawks, leaving more open ice than the Hawks have seen all postseason.
But no matter how the Kings play, they won’t be able to win four of the next five games if Crawford is outplaying Quick.
And there’s no reason to think Crawford won’t continue to play at a high level. He’s been doing it all season.
“I feel like I’ve been pretty strong, pretty consistent this year,” Crawford said. “I’ve taken pride in that this year, to have the same game every night, give our guys a chance.”
And while Quick was on the bench in the third period Sunday night, Crawford was doing more than just protecting a lead. When Jonathan Toews was grabbed from behind by Kyle Clifford, the goaltender had his captain’s back.
“The guy grabbed him, got a couple free shots,” Crawford said. “I figured it was enough. I just decided to go in there and grab his head.”
The sold-out United Center crowd went nuts. And you better believe his teammates noticed it. Just another event building more momentum for the Blackhawks.
As good as the Kings have been at home, it’s going to be tough to stop the Blackhawks’ now. Their best chance of doing so is with their goaltender, who needs to bounce back quickly.
But even that won’t be enough if Crawford has anything to say about it.
The message was reiterated Sunday night: “I definitely want to beat him.”
Two down. Two to go.
Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, Blackhawks, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHoge and read more of his columns here.