The Chicago Blackhawks and the defending Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings will, after hard-fought second round series against the Red Wings and Sharks, respectively, face off in the Western Conference Finals. Here’s what you need to know before they drop the puck on Saturday:
HOW THEY GOT THERE: Los Angeles Kings (def. St. Louis, 4-2; def. San Jose, 4-3) –
The defending champs have had the most difficult road of any of the teams that are still standing. Their opening-round series against the Blues was about as close as they come, with each one of the six games played being decided by a single goal. Then they faced the red-hot Sharks and went the full seven games, with the home team winning every game of the series. Though they haven’t been as potent offensively as they were in the playoffs last year, their defense is as stout as it’s ever been.
Chicago Blackhawks (def. Minnesota, 4-1; def. Detroit, 4-3) – Before the playoffs started, many felt that they were merely ceremonial, and that the Blackhawks, after one of the most dominant regular seasons in NHL history, would breeze to the Stanley Cup title. In the opening round, the Wild did little to refute that, going down easily in five games to Chicago. Then they ran into the Red Wings in the second round. Detroit took a 3-1 lead in the series thanks to the goalkeeping of Jimmy Howard and the struggles of Chicago’s Jonathan Toews. Yes, the Blackhawks came back and won three straight, including a controversial Game Seven win at home in overtime. Chicago is still among the last four teams standing (the first time since 1945 that the previous four Stanley Cup winners reached their respective conference finals) but they look more vulnerable than they have all season.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Jonathan Quick, G, Kings – The defending Conn Smythe Trophy winner has been a workhorse again for Los Angeles, playing every minute of the postseason so far and leading all qualifying goalies in Goals Against Average and Save Percentage. He has three shutouts and hasn’t allowed more than three goals in a single game. He’s seeing nearly 2.5 more shots per game than in last year’s playoffs, but is still a brick wall. Now he gets to face one of the highest-scoring teams in the league, albeit one whose offensive production has dropped off a bit during the playoffs. Don’t expect Quick to get rattled; he knows that the Kings will only go as far as he can take them, which worked out fairly well last season.
Jonathan Toews, C, Blackhawks – Perhaps the most shocking development in the 2013 Playoffs has been the plummeting production of Jonathan Toews. After scoring 23 goals in the regular season, tied for best on the team with Patrick Kane, he has scored just once in 12 games so far in the postseason, for a measly 2.7% shooting percentage. He has become a liability more than a threat. Blackhawks fans are thankful that players have stepped up, especially Patrick Sharp, who has already scored more goals in the playoffs than in his injury-riddled regular season. Still, with Quick stopping just about everything that comes his way, Chicago will need all hands on deck offensively. If Toews can turn it around and start putting points on the board, or at least getting involved enough to draw more defensive attention, the Blackhawks will be difficult to beat.
PREDICTION: Considering the excitement of these teams’ respective second-round series, expectations are high. Points will be at a premium, with both Quick and Blackhawks goalkeeper Corey Crawford playing as well as they have all year. It will come down to Chicago’s power play offense; they were below average in the regular season, and will need to take advantage of every opportunity they get against LA. Chicago will eventually make Quick and the Kings’ defense look human, but it will take all seven games to do so. Blackhawks in seven.