After the first two rounds of the playoffs, I have correctly predicted the outcome of nine of the twelve series played. So far, New York knocking out Pittsburgh has been my biggest upset pick. Hopefully I can keep my hot streak going here.
So for the second year in a row, we get a Chicago-LA Western Conference Final. This is a matchup of the last two Stanley Cup winners, and many believe the winner of this series will go on and win the Cup again.
The Kings enter this series fresh off a dominating Game 7 win in Anaheim in which they beat the Ducks by a final of 6-2. I was anticipating the Kings to win that game, but not in that fashion. They are on a tear right now despite needing seven games to dispatch the Ducks. Marian Gaborik has done exactly what the Kings were praying he would do when they acquired him at the trade deadline a couple of months ago. He leads the playoffs with 9 goals, and also has 6 assists to go along with that. He also sits second in the league in points right now with 15, 4 points behind teammate Anze Kopitar. Speaking of Kopitar, this guy is playing in a different world right now. Neither Dallas or Anaheim could figure out a way to slow him down. To beat Chicago, the Kings will need those two guys to keep playing at their current pace. Besides those two, the Kings are one of the deeper teams in hockey at the forward position. They can roll four lines just about as well as anyone in the NHL, and all four of those lines have been valuable to them this postseason as the Kings are averaging the most goals per game of any team. Again, to beat the Blackhawks, they’ll need production from their depth guys. We all know the Kings are a top defensive team in the league, and they are proving that to us yet again right now. After allowing 22 goals in the first round to the Sharks, the Kings allowed just 15 to the Ducks in the second round. They rank fifth in the playoffs in GA/G, but would be higher had they not been asleep through the first 3 games of the first round against San Jose. Drew Doughty is having an excellent postseason defensively, and he is one of their most important players in the offensive zone as well. However, the Kings will need more defensemen than just Doughty to be good offensively if they want to advance. In goal, Jonathan Quick has been decent, but not outstanding like in years past. Going back to last year’s regular season and WCF, he has really struggled against the Hawks. Could Chicago already be in Quick’s head before the series even starts?
As for the Blackhawks, they knocked off the Wild in six games in the second round to get to this point, but it wasn’t easy. The Wild did what the Kings will try and do, and that is win the neutral zone and force the Hawks to play a chip-and-chase game. The Blackhawks need to figure out how to be more effective on the forecheck after chipping pucks into the offensive zone than they were against Minnesota. If they can find a way to use their speed against the Kings and put LA on their heels, that would be ideal for Chicago. To do that, Kane and Toews will need to lead the way yet again. However, without more production from guys like Hossa, Sharp, Saad, and the depth guys, Chicago could find themselves in trouble. They are hoping to get Andrew Shaw back at some point during this series, and they’ll need him. His physical and pesty presence on the ice is key in the playoffs, not to mention his ability to screen goalies on the powerplay. One thing that the Blackhawks absolutely need to do better this series than in the first two is taking less penalties. The Kings can be a dangerous team with the man advantage, so the Hawks won’t want to test them too often. Having said that, the Blackhawks’ penalty kill has been outstanding thus far. They lead the playoffs with a 91.3 penalty kill percentage, and now is not the time for that trend to change. A big reason for that number is the play of Corey Crawford through the first two rounds. Your goalie is your most important man on the PK, and Crawford has come up huge time and time again for the Hawks while shorthanded. This postseason, Crawford has the best save percentage and goals against average of any goalie in the league. While most people will be focusing on Quick this series (as usual), it is Crawford who has actually been the better goalie for the second postseason in a row. He’ll need the help of his defensemen against LA, and so Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson, and Oduya will need to be really good to beat the Kings. How well the pairing of Hjalmarsson and Oduya plays could determine how this series pans out.
This is not the same Kings team that lost to the Blackhawks in 5 games during last year’s Western Conference Final. They are healthy now and have more firepower than they did a year ago. That said, I still don’t think the Blackhawks have played their best game(s) yet. They didn’t really come close to doing so against the Wild, yet still won that series in six games. I’d anticipate the Hawks to take their game to the next level now, and it’ll be on the Kings to try and stop them. If they do, or if the Blackhawks run out of gas after all the hockey they’ve played the last two years, LA will advance. If Chicago does begin to play their game and find some new energy, it’ll be them going on to their second straight Stanley Cup Final.
This should be a good one.
-Chicago wins series, 4-2.