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Western Conference Finals Preview: Blackhawks vs. Kings

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

The Blackhawks and Kings meet again in the Western Conference finals. (USATSI)
The Blackhawks and Kings meet again in the Western Conference finals. (USATSI)

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Oh, you again. The Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings will meet in the Western Conference final for the second straight year. The Blackhawks dispatched the Kings in five games en route to their second Stanley Cup title in four seasons in 2013. Now the two teams meet as the most recent Stanley Cup champions, playing for a chance to add more to the résumé as an organization on its way to dynasty status.

Though they'll be wearing the same jerseys and look very similar to the clubs that met last season, there are some distinct differences.

The Blackhawks had to move some of their depth players in the offseason and replaced them with less experienced charges. That got exploited a little bit by Minnesota in the last round after forward Andrew Shaw got injured. That said, the top end of Chicago's lineup remains as strong as any in the league and is a battle-tested core.

The Kings, meanwhile, having just gone through a roller coaster of the first two rounds this postseason, appears to have a stronger group on paper than it did last year. The roster is largely unchanged, save for the big deadline acquisition of Marian Gaborik, who has stoked the Kings' offensive capabilities since his arrival.

Chicago has been off since Tuesday, giving it significant rest to get healthy and prepare for the Kings, while Los Angeles is coming off its second consecutive seven-game series and only two days rest before meeting the defending champs. The rest vs. hot team debate will continue to rage on, but with the talent level of both groups, it's unclear if it will really matter at all.

These are two of the best teams in the National Hockey League and they have been for the past few years. Both have been through the postseason grind before. Both have been to the top. Everything about this series screams entertainment, drama and perhaps more than anything based on this playoff season, unpredictability.

With the way the Kings have fought back in their previous two series to Chicago sometimes winning games in spite of itself this year, you really never know what you're going to get out of this conference final. It should be fun as these two teams offer such great rosters and playing styles to leave fans satisfied.

CHI Offense vs. LAK Defense

This one is interesting. Chicago unquestionably is loaded at the top of the lineup, with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa all having remarkable postseasons. Patrick Sharp hasn't been as productive this postseason, somewhat surprisingly, but he remains a threat, while Bryan Bickell continues his postseason excellence in the face of middling production throughout the regular season.

However, if the series with the Minnesota Wild showed anything, it is that this Chicago team is not as deep at the bottom of the lineup as last season. They were able to get by on talent against Minnesota, but that's not going to be enough against a team as good as the Kings. If Shaw remains out, Joel Quenneville, who throws his lines in a blender so much that even the staff at Orange Julius thinks its excessive, has to find the right mix at the bottom of the lineup to keep up with a very deep Los Angeles squad.

The Blackhawks' lack of a true No. 2 center hasn't hurt them in the past, but it's pretty clear that Michal Handzus isn't even at the level he was last year and has been a drag on his linemates, especially Kane. This could be an area of concern.

The thing that makes the Kings scarier than either the Blues or the Wild when it comes to the Blackhawks' opponents is their ability to possess the puck. It seems all of LA's forwards can get the puck up ice and manage it extremely well. On top of that, all of their defensemen seem to have a great first pass out of the zone. It was telling that the Kings lost shutdown defensemen Willie Mitchell and Robyn Regehr to injury last round and they didn't miss a beat. The best defense is possessing the puck.

Drew Doughty is having a Conn Smythe-worthy campaign as his two-way capabilities on the blue line remain among the league's elite. He will play a ton against Chicago's best players and may give them trouble. The emergence of Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez this postseason has helped make the Kings even stronger in possession as they are able to get pucks up ice and keep the play pinned in the other end.

They won't be able to dominate the Blackhawks, but they can slow them down. Because of the stars on Chicago's end, however, they still get the slight edge here. That said, the gap seems narrower than it was last year due to the relative (to last season) lack of depth for the Blackhawks. It will be interesting to watch the chess match between these two coaches to see how much of a factor the depth issue becomes.

LAK Offense vs. CHI Defense

To me, this is the most intriguing matchup of the entire series and maybe the entire playoffs. The Kings have had their Jekyll and Hyde moments this postseason, but are averaging 3.21 goals per game, which is second best among all teams this postseason. They're also averaging more than 30 shots on goal per game. Offense isn't as hard to come by as it was during the regular season for the Kings.

Anze Kopitar is the runaway favorite for the Conn Smythe among the two remaining teams in the West. The brilliant two-way center has 19 points in 14 games and has been held off the score sheet just once the entire postseason.

Gaborik, a late-season acquisition, has nine goals to lead all players in the playoffs, while Jeff Carter and Justin Williams have each contributed 11 points.

What the Kings showed against the Ducks, however is that they can get contributions from all four lines, which is so important in the postseason. On top of that, the Kings have a very active defense that gets involved offensively led by Doughty, Muzzin and Martinez. They also have Slava Voynov, who hasn't produced as much this postseason but remains a threat from the back end with a booming shot.

So the Blackhawks have a lot to contend with when it comes to defending. Chicago's defensive top four has been mostly good this postseason, logging big, tough minutes against top lines and doing a fair job of shutting them down.

Duncan Keith has been a horse, averaging more than 27 minutes a night, while paired with Brent Seabrook, who has had a rather strong postseason at both ends of the ice. The top shutdown pairing for Chicago has been Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya, who have each had flashes of brilliance and terror this postseason. Chicago's last pairing has been a revolving door of Michal Rozsival, Nick Leddy and Sheldon Brookbank, which at times has been a liability.

The Blackhawks also have two of the game's elite defensive forwards in Hossa and Toews to help out, but that questionable forward depth also plays a role in Chicago's ability to adequately defend as a team.

The Kings are going to give this club fits with their strong four lines, ability to possess the puck at a consistent level and their newfound scoring prowess.

After going back and forth quite a bit, I think this is an area where the Kings have a visible edge. It's not significant, but it's there and this could end up being the difference in the series.

Goaltending

If I were writing this preview for last year's event, it would have been a "significant edge" for the Kings and Jonathan Quick without batting an eye. But this year, after Corey Crawford had such a tremendous run in 2013 to the Stanley Cup and a great start in 2014, I don't think the gap is wide. In fact, there's probably no gap at all.

If you had nothing to go off except save percentage, would you pick the goalie with a .931 mark or .914? You're going with the former in pretty much every case. That would be Crawford in this situation.

However, the notable thing about Quick's performance this postseason is the way he has performed when the Kings are facing elimination. Quick has gone 6-0 in those situations, posting a remarkable save percentage of .956. He seems to raise his game in these key situations, to a point where even if you don't believe in "clutch" play, this will give you pause.

That's a double-edged sword, though. Sure, Quick is amazing in those elimination situations, but when you look at that .914 save percentage, Quick is as complicit as anyone in the Kings facing elimination six times already this season.

Crawford has dealt with his fair share of criticism over the past few years as the Blackhawks' starter, and rightfully so at the start. It's not warranted as much anymore. His .931 save percentage is right in line with the .932 mark he had last year. Even 2013 Conn Smythe winner Patrick Kane said he thought the award should have gone to Crawford after last year's run.

One of the more remarkable things about Crawford this postseason is that he has a .938 save percentage against the opponents' power play. That's really strong stuff out of Chicago's goaltender as special teams can prove important in close games, of which there should be many this series.

Does Crawford give up bad goals? Sure. All goalies do. Just ask Quick. But there aren't a ton of flaws in the Blackhawks, so when you start looking them, that's when Crawford starts coming under fire unfairly.

These are two Cup-winning goalies, both of which have the potential to steal a game or two for their teams. Quick is far more heralded, but this is an even matchup, all things considered.

Special Teams

The power play for both teams has been decent throughout the postseason, not great, but certainly not a huge concern. That said, there is a pretty wide gap between the two when it comes to penalty killing.

The Blackhawks have been excellent in that regard with a kill rate of 91.3 percent, tops among all teams in the postseason. A lot of that has to do with Crawford's aforementioned .938 save percentage with his team on the PK. This is another area where home-ice advantage could come into play as well as the Hawks killed nearly 95 percent of their penalties at the United Center against an 88.9 rate on the road.

The Kings are the better team on the power play, posting 11 power-play goals on 48 advantages in the playoffs, but they'll face a much stronger penalty-killing team in Chicago.

The Blackhawks meanwhile have converted on 18.2 percent of their powerplays and they'll face the most-penalized team in these playoffs. Los Angeles has allowed nine power-play goals on a postseason-high 56 disadvantages during the postseason.

Since there's not a lot between the two sides when it comes to the power play, it seems like Chicago's ability to kill penalties could be the real difference between the two sides, leading to a slight advantage for the Blackhawks here.

Predictions

SeriesBrian Stubits
@StubitsCBS
Chris Peters
@ChrisMPeters
Dennis Dodd
@DennisDoddCBS
Chicago Blackhawks vs.
Los Angeles Kings

6 games

7 games

6 games

Schedule

Series2
DateTimeSiteTelevisionScoreSeries
Sun May 183 ETChicagoNBC, TSN, RDS
Wed May 218 ETChicagoNBCSN, TSN, RDS
Sat May 248 ETLos AngelesNBC, CBC, RDS
Mon May 269 ETLos AngelesNBCSN, TSN, RDS
*Wed May 288 ETChicagoNBCSN, CBC, RDS
*Fri May 309 ETLos AngelesNBCSN, CBC, RDS
*Sun Jun 18 ETChicagoNBCSN, CBC, RDS
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