The Chicago Blackhawks Must Stay the Course Against the Los Angeles Kings
Anyone who has tracked the buildup to the Western Conference Finals can hear the whispers. The Red Wings were one thing, but this is the defending champions and they're playing their best hockey. Flashy is not a word that follows the Los Angeles Kings, an ironic statement considering the town they play in, but they are built to win in the playoffs and the Chicago Blackhawks understand that. In order to not waste their classic comeback over Detroit the key to beating the champs isn't in any secret strategy. It is in sticking to how they play.
The mighty Jonathan Quick
Every hockey expert with a shred of credibility can see the writing on the wall. The big reason why the Kings won the Stanley Cup and keep winning this year is the prowess of goaltender Jonathan Quick. The 27-year old native out of Milford, Connecticut has once again made the playoffs his personal stage. Using his typical aggressive style sliding out of the crease and getting into shooting lanes with his quick reflexes, there hasn't been a better net minder through two playoff rounds. Quick holds a 1.50 goals against average, the lowest of any goalie left in the playoffs. That includes three shutouts and a .948 save percentage. Lovers of the sport will all say the quickest way to a championship is great goaltending. Never mind the fact Los Angeles has a pretty good group in front of Quick, a group that boasts size, speed and plays great defense. So how can the Blackhawks hope to penetrate it?
Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane can point to history
The answer isn't hard to find. All one needs to do is look back at the regular season. Los Angeles and Chicago played three games against each other. In those matches the Hawks averaged 4 goals per game. Their speed, passing and aggressiveness took advantage of a lot of what the Kings do best. Los Angeles went 1-2 in those games and the only game they won was a 5-4 comeback. Their most humiliating loss came on opening night when Jonathan Toews, Marion Hossa and Patrick Kane unloaded on Quick. Chicago scored three goals in the first period and won the game 5-2 on the Kings' home ice. Los Angeles had the best home record during the season and haven't loss there yet in the playoffs. The fact the Blackhawks have won there already is a huge factor in this series.
Corey Crawford all growed up
Lost in all the hoopla of Quick and his ascent to playoff kingpin is the silent rise of another young goaltender. Blackhawks man Corey Crawford, much maligned for issues with consistency in the playoffs, has developed into a key reason why Chicago made it to the conference finals. The 28-year old has a .938 save percentage, 1.70 goals against average in the playoffs and a 3.54 goals against average versus the Kings. While not the model of consistency Quick is, considering how well his team has played Los Angeles, his presence in goal is impossible to ignore.
One must also not forget the lessons of the past. There were a few times during the series against Detroit where Crawford had every reason to lose his composure, giving up bad goals at worse times. Instead he displayed the ability of a veteran to get back under control and continue playing his game. There is no greater asset and liability to a goaltender than what is between his ears. Crawford seems to have gotten his under control.
NHL ranks don't lie
Which factor is most critical if the Blackhawks want to topple the Kings?
Barring those critical points, Chicago must believe in their ability. They won the Presidents Trophy because they won the most games and scored the most points. Compared to L.A. they scored more goals, had more assists and even posted more shutouts. People will say the regular season doesn't count for much but that just isn't true. The Blackhawks played better than everybody all year. The Kings are the defending champs but they can't fight simple math. Chicago won more games and gained the perks that come with it. Home ice belongs to them in this series. They were 18-3-3 at home and just as good on the road. Los Angeles was great at home but went 8-12-4 in away games. The Blackhawks have no right to be cocky in this series but every reason to be confident. They are built to win in any arena against any team. That includes the defending champions and their outstanding goaltender.