The Glass Eye: NHL Playoff Preview, Western Conference Finals

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It’s a heavyweight rematch in the West – the Blackhawks and Kings are the last two Stanley Cup champions, and these teams met up last season with the Blackhawks prevailing 4-2. The Kings have had the harder road thus far, enduring two grueling 7-game series, while the ‘Hawks have won both of their series in six. Let’s break down the matchup:

FORWARDS

There’s simply no question that offensively, the Blackhawks are the better club. Chicago was among the league leaders in scoring, finishing second in the league in goals scored, while LA ranked 26th. The Hawks have perhaps the most dynamic duo in the game today in Kane and Toews, along with impressive depth (Sharp, Hossa, Saad, Shaw, etc). Their 3rd/4th lines have also been very productive in the postseason.

LA has two good lines, with Anze Kopitar and Marian Gaborik as their main threats. Carter, Williams, and Brown provide some depth but this team struggles to score every year and when they struggle, it’s usually because they cannot get more than a goal or two per game. They also do not boast the depth that Chicago enjoys – their bottom lines are excellent defensively, but cannot be counted on to provide consistent offense.

Overall, there’s a substantial edge here for the Blackhawks…but keep in mind, the Ducks were the #1 offense in the NHL during the season and the Kings just knocked them out.

DEFENSE

This is the lifeblood of the Kings – they have a deep defensive corps, headlined by all-star Drew Doughty. #8 is their power-play quarterback, one of the best scoring defensemen in the league, and he will play 25-30 minutes per game.

Voynov, Mitchell, Muzzin, and Martinez are also above-average defenders who can move the puck…but the loss of Robyn Regehr to injury forces ex-Cap Jeff Schultz into the lineup at least to start this series, and he’s by far the weakest link on this unit.

The Kings will look to use Doughty and Muzzin as much as possible against the Kane/Toews unit, and try to keep their third unit off the ice against Chicago’s top two lines as much as possible.

Chicago counters with a solid unit of their own, led by Duncan Keith. Keith has always been a solid defender, but he broke out offensively with 61 points, the most he’s had since 2009-10 (also a Cup season for Chicago). He generally partners with Brent Seabrook, and they comprise one of the top defensive pairs in the league.

Veterans Johnny Oduya and Nik Hjalmarsson form the second pair, and both are effective much like LA’s second pair. The third pairing is a little more vulnerable – Nick Leddy played all 82 games and was fairly consistent, but the sixth slot was split between Michael Roszival and Sheldon Brookbank during the season.

Much like the Kings, the Hawks will try to utilize Keith and Seabrook against the Kopitar line, and protect their bottom pair as much as possible. Whichever team wins this little ‘chess game’ will have a decided advantage. Overall I think this is a very even matchup, I give a slight edge to the Kings because I like their second-tier defensemen a bit more than Chicago’s…but it’s a SLIGHT margin.

GOALTENDING

Both teams have very high confidence in their goalies, but the pedigree certainly favors LA. Jonathan Quick has exceptional numbers the last few seasons, he was the playoff MVP in 2012 as they won the Cup, and he backstopped Team USA in the Sochi Olympics three months ago. Given the disparity on scoring between these two teams, it’s clear to me that Quick has to be the ‘x-factor’ for the Kings to have a chance in this series.

Corey Crawford is often overlooked with all the star power in Chicago, but he overcame all doubters in winning the Cup a season ago and he has been outstanding in three out of his four full seasons in Chicago. With a team this talented, a goalie rarely has to steal the game…he simply has to make the saves he’s supposed to make and let the offense do their job. Crawford isn’t overly flashy but he RARELY lets a soft goal in.

The advantage goes to the Kings, and it’s a crucial one….if Crawford plays Quick even, the Kings have almost no chance to win.

OTHER FACTORS

LA has had two amazing comebacks – they came back from a 3-0 series deficit in round 1, and a 3-2 deficit in round 2 – but at some point, that will likely come back to hurt them. 7-game series take a tremendous amount of energy, and the Kings HAVE to be fatigued at this point. The Blackhawks, by comparison, have had plenty of rest after both series and I look for that to be a big advantage as this round progresses.

Both teams have solid fan bases, but the crowd and atmosphere at Chicago are among the elite in the league while LA’s crowds are usually somewhat more subdued. Both teams are good both at home and on the road, but I think Chicago definitely enjoys more home-ice advantage.

As in the Eastern Final, I see no coaching advantage…these are two veteran coaches, each with recent Cup wins, and neither is likely to be caught off-guard by anything that happens in this series.

PREDICTION

If we’ve learned anything, it’s to NEVER count LA out – they seem to have an uncanny ability to play their best when their backs are against the wall – but frankly I think they are going to run out of gas this round. The Hawks are too strong, too experienced, and too good to collapse like the Sharks and Ducks did – the Kings HAVE to keep from digging a hole in this series. LA is too good to go down quickly, and I think Quick will steal a game or two, but Chicago looks to be the new dynasty in the NHL and I don’t think LA can stop them in 2014. CHICAGO IN SIX.

Dave Glass can be reached at dsglass74@gmail.com.

 

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