Blackhawks host Kings in opener of West finals
(SportsNetwork.com) - The Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings will kick off their second straight Western Conference title clash Sunday afternoon, as the defending Stanley Cup champions host Game 1 from the Windy City.
The Blackhawks eliminated Los Angeles in five games during last spring's West finals, but the series was hardly a blowout. Chicago outscored the Kings by a combined 14-11 margin in the series and clinched the set with a 4-3 double- overtime victory.
Last season's playoff encounter was the second meeting between the clubs in the playoffs. Chicago also beat the Kings in five games during the 1974 quarterfinals.
The Blackhawks went 3-0 against L.A. in the 2013-14 season series and has claimed five of the last six regular-season matchups against the Kings.
After kicking off this series with a Sunday matinee, the clubs won't meet again until Wednesday's Game 2 back at the United Center.
Chicago has experienced some stumbles along the way in the 2014 postseason, but the dream of becoming the first team to win consecutive Cups since Detroit repeated as champions in 1997 and '98 is still there for the taking.
The Blackhawks fell behind 2-0 in the first round against St. Louis before winning four straight to take the series. Chicago then jumped out to a 2-0 lead in Round 2 versus the Wild before allowing Minnesota to even the set with wins in Games 3 and 4 on home ice. However, Joel Quenneville's club picked up a home win in Game 5 before closing out the series in six with an overtime win at Minnesota's Xcel Energy Center.
Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews have combined to score seven of Chicago's eight game-winning goals in this postseason, a fact that should surprise no one. Both players have won Conn Smythe Trophies, with Toews taking the playoff MVP award in 2010 and Kane winning it last spring.
Chicago is averaging 2.92 goals per game on offense this postseason and allowing 2.25 goals on defense. It's possible the offensive output could go even higher if Patrick Sharp begins scoring at his regular-season clip. Sharp led the Blackhawks with 34 goals and 78 points in 82 games during the regular season, but has two goals and four assists in 12 playoff tilts. The good news for Chicago is half of Sharp's postseason points came over Games 4 and 5 against Minnesota.
Chicago expects to get injured forward Andrew Shaw back at some point during the conference finals, but his return will not come in Game 1. Shaw suffered a lower-body injury in the opener against Minnesota and missed the remainder of the series. He is a valuable net presence on the power play and has two goals and two assists over seven playoff games this spring.
Forward Brandon Bollig missed the final two games of the Wild series due to a suspension, but is available to play in Game 1 against the Kings.
Although Brent Seabrook is leading Chicago's blue line in scoring with 11 points (2G, 9A), it's pretty clear Duncan Keith is Quenneville's go-to guy at the back end. Keith, the Norris Trophy winner in 2010 and a finalist for the award this season, is leading Chicago with an average of 27 minutes, 57 seconds of ice time per game in the playoffs. That's over three minutes more per game than Seabrook, who is next with an average ice time of 24:19.
Keith has two goals and six assists and is tied for the club lead with a plus- five rating.
Although Corey Crawford is rarely mentioned among the NHL's goaltending elite he has become a steady netminder for this championship club. Crawford posted a 1.84 goals-against average and .932 save percentage over 23 games in last year's Cup title run and has similar numbers in 2014, registering a 1.97 GAA and .931 save percentage through 12 games.
The Kings dominated their way to the franchise's first Stanley Cup title in 2012. Things haven't gone as smoothly so far in 2014 but after winning a pair of road Game 7s to reach Round 3, it's pretty clear Los Angeles still is a dangerous opponent this time of year.
L.A. went 16-4 in the 2012 playoffs with it's toughest test coming in a six- game series win over New Jersey in the Cup Finals. This spring, the Kings are showing they can be just as scary with their backs against the wall.
San Jose held a 3-0 series lead over Los Angeles in the opening round, but the Kings won four straight to become just the fourth team in NHL history to win a best-of-seven set after dropping the first three games. The Kings then found themselves down 3-2 to Anaheim in the conference semis before taking Game 6 on home ice and then routing the Ducks, 6-2, in another road Game 7.
Friday's decisive victory pushed the Kings record in elimination games this spring to 6-0. However, L.A. hopes it doesn't have to improve that mark when it aims for revenge against Chicago in this conference finals rematch.
"They're playing really well right now, so we've got to be focused on what they've been doing the last couple of series and the way they're playing. Seems like they're never out of a game or out of a series," said Seabrook of the resilient Kings.
The Kings boast tremendous forward depth and also have a sturdy blue line led by talented defenseman Drew Doughty, but the club's biggest asset may reside between the pipes.
Jonathan Quick, the 2012 Conn Smythe winner, has had better numbers in his two prior trips to the postseason but he has come through when needed most in 2014. Since allowing 19 goals in the first four games of the playoffs against San Jose, the 28-year-old American has yielded only 17 goals over his next 10 outings.
He stopped 94-of-96 shots (.979 save percentage) sent his way in Games 5, 6 and 7 against San Jose and turned aside 46-of-49 (.939) in the final two games against Anaheim.
Quick has a 2.72 GAA and .914 save percentage this spring and is 37-27 with a 2.17 GAA and .926 save percentage over 64 career playoff games.
The top offensive performers for L.A. so far this spring have been Anze Kopitar and Marian Gaborik, who are leading the NHL in points and goals, respectively, in this postseason.
Kopitar has a league-best 19 points on five goals and 14 assists, while Gaborik, an in-season trade acquisition from Columbus, is pacing the NHL with nine goals and is tied for second in points with 15. But, that duo is only the tip of the iceberg for the Kings, who also boast the likes of captain Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Justin Williams on offense.
The Kings have had 15 players score at least one goal this postseason and 11 of them have notched two or more markers. And it's not only the forwards chipping in on offense for L.A., as the Kings have four defensemen with goals so far this spring. Jake Muzzin leads the way with three markers, Alec Martinez has two and Doughty and Slava Voynov have one goal each. Martinez and Muzzin also have chipped in with four assists apiece.
Doughty is the clear No. 1 option at the back end for head coach Darryl Sutter. He is leading the blue line with nine points in 14 games and is second to Kopitar on the team with a plus-seven rating. The 24-year-old Doughty also is averaging 27:24 of ice time per game in the playoffs, placing him way ahead of Voynov, who is next on the club with an average of 21:45.
The Kings played the entire Anaheim series without defenseman Willie Mitchell and fellow veteran Robyn Regehr missed the final six games of the set. Mitchell expects to return in this series but is questionable for Game 1, while Regehr's could be sidelined longer.
Quick only faced Chicago once this season and surrendered five goals on 30 shots in a 5-3 home loss on Feb. 3. He is 6-12-1 with a 2.76 GAA and .910 save percentage in 19 regular-season games against Chicago.
Crawford's lone appearance versus L.A. this season also came in Chicago's 5-3 road win back in February. He is 6-3-0 lifetime with a 2.74 GAA and .906 save percentage in nine games against the Kings, not including the playoffs.
05/18 10:24:48 ET