By Jay Zawaski-
(CBS) — Since eliminating the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday night, the Blackhawks have been waiting to find out which team they’d face in the Western Conference Final.
They finally have their answer. Friday night, the Los Angeles Kings eliminated the Anaheim Ducks, winning 6-2 in Anaheim.
The Kings will now face the Hawks in the West Final for the second consecutive season. With the Kings winning, the Hawks have home ice advantage for the remainder of their playoffs.
In 2013, the Hawks eliminated the Kings in five games, and that has some Hawks observers feeling supremely confident in this matchup. However, those Kings were struggling with injuries to key players, and should prove a much tougher matchup for the defending champs this time around.
CHICAGO vs LA
2014 HEAD TO HEAD
Goals for: 9
Goals against: 4
Corsi* for: 157 (51.4%)
Corsi* against: 149 (48.6%)
Shots for: 100
Shots against: 82
As you can see, the Hawks had pretty good success vs the Kings this season, but as we learned in these playoffs, the regular season means very little once the playoffs begin. The Hawks had been pretty bad (13-13-3) vs the Western Conference Central Division, but here they are again in the West Final.
Let’s take a look at the Kings by position.
The Kings top line of Marian Gaborik, Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown has been outstanding, especially Gaborik, who leads the league in playoff goals (9). In the 7 games series vs the Ducks, this line combined for 21 points, including 10 from Gaborik and 9 from Kopitar. This line is very similar to the Patrick Sharp – Jonathan Toews – Marian Hossa line. The left wing is a sniper, the center is a two-way dynamo and the right wing is a bullish power forward.
The Kings second line features Tanner Pearson, Jeff Carter and Tyler Toffoli. You may remember Carter from the 2010 Cup Final when he was a star for the Flyers, or last season, when he was the victim of a vicious slash to the face by Hawks defenseman Duncan Keith. He has 11 points in 14 playoff games this season, and makes this line go.
Carter’s career partner in crime, Mike Richards, has been centering the Kings 4th line, but shouldn’t be ignored or written off. He’s a very good two-way player, and has a lot of big game experience.
The other Kings forward to watch is Justin Williams, who is one of those guys who seems to find a different level in the playoffs. He has 10 points in 14 playoff games this season. He can score, he’s physical and comes up big when the Kings need him most.
Drew Doughty is the Kings best defenseman, and one of the best in the game. When he’s on the ice, the Kings are a different team. His balance of offense and defense makes him invaluable. He has 9 points in 14 playoff games this season, and is a catalyst for the team. Doughty also logs big minutes. Doughty averages 27:24 per game. He also leads the league in overall playoff ice time, with 411:48. That will continue vs the Blackhawks. Expect to see a lot of #8 when the Hawks’ top players are on the ice.
Doughty is paired with 25 year-old Jake Muzzin, who’s really rounded into a quality defenseman. Physical and steady with some offensive ability, Muzzin is a player on the rise.
Slava Voynov heads the 2nd pair with Jeff Schultz, while Alec Martinez and Matt Greene round out a very solid bottom pair.
LA might have the as solid a D as anyone remaining in the playoffs. Aside from the top six listed, they have injured veterans Robyn Regehr and Willie Mitchell. They get that much better when those two are healthy.
You’ve all heard of Jonathan Quick. He’s a Cup Champion and Conn Smythe Trophy winner. He’s been on Team USA’s two most recent hockey teams. He’s elite, and can change a series. If the Kings do have an advantage over the Hawks, it’s in goal. That’s not a knock on Corey Crawford. It just demonstrates the greatness of Quick. He’s outstanding positionally, fast with his reflexes, and has an almost Matrix-like ability to slow down the game and make saves he has no business making.
His backup is 24 year-old Martin Jones. Jones put up excellent numbers during the regular season, going 12-6 with a 1.81 GAA and .934 save percentage.
This is going to be an intense series with the Kings, who have been battling these entire playoffs. They’ve faced elimination six times this postseason, including three times vs the San Jose Sharks. They’re 6-0 in those games.
While that’s certainly impressive, one has to wonder if that will eventually take it’s toll on the Kings. The Hawks are the best team they’ve faced in the playoffs. Meanwhile, the argument can be made that the Hawks took care of their toughest opponent (St. Louis) in the first round.
I like the Hawks in every category except in goal, and even that isn’t that huge of an upgrade, considering how great Crawford has been for Chicago. That said, there was nothing the Wild did better than the Hawks, and it took them 6 games to knock them off. The Hawks lack of willingness to adjust to the Wild’s gameplan is what made the series tougher than it should have been. Twenty or thirty minutes efforts will not beat the Kings.
The Hawks will also have to play with leads in this series. The Kings are 5-1 when leading after 1, and 6-0 when leading after 2. The Kings are a team, like Minnesota, that can clog up the neutral zone and trap the Hawks to death. However, I expect the Kings to use that as a last resort, instead of as a series gameplan. It should be a much more exciting and intense series than the stuck-in-mud fest the Hawks played vs the Wild.
Bottom line…the Hawks are a better team from top to bottom, but this series is going the distance.
Hawks in 7.
Game 1 Sun, May 18 2:00 p.m. United Center NBC
Game 2 Wed, May 21 7:00 p.m. United Center NBCSN
Game 3 Sat, May 24 7:00 p.m. Staples Center NBC
Game 4 Mon, May 26 8:00 p.m. Staples Center NBCSN
Game 5 Wed, May 28 7:00 p.m. United Center NBCSN
Game 6 Fri, May 30 8:00 p.m. Staples Center NBCSN
Game 7 Sun, June 1 7:00 p.m. United Center NBCSN