It doesn’t get any easier, does it.
After dispatching of the troublesome Red Wings, the Blackhawks get an even bigger test: the Los Angeles Kings. The defending champions have a great team with many skilled players just as the Blackhawks do, and play a gritty style that has given them lots of success in recent years. The Kings are led by three key players, and the Chicago Blackhawks will need to keep them in check in order to advance to the Stanley Cup Final
Anze Kopitar is the LA Kings’ best offensive weapon, and he can give his opponents fits. He has been the Kings’ leading scorer six years in a row, including 2013 where he amassed 42 points (10G 32A).Kopitar is very slippery and is deceptive with his speed, which he has shown expertly on occasion, including a highlight reel goal against St. Louis in last year’s playoffs. Kopitar also wears the “A” for LA, and he leads by example with a strong work ethic.
The Blackhawks will look to their strong blueline presence to keep Kopitar from generating any danger offensively. Kopitar leads the rush out of the defensive end after a pass from the Kings’ defense, so the Blackhawks need to clog up the neutral zone to prevent him from walking in. If this works he will have to pass to one of his wingers, who are far less dangerous, or dump it down, and either get an icing call, or allow the Blackhawks to beat him to the puck and start a rush of their own. As it is with all Kings forwards, they will need to be physical. The Kings have played only one more playoff game then their Chicago counterparts, so the Hawks will need to put the body on Kopitar and his peers often to wear them down.
Dustin Brown is quite possibly the Kings’ most complete player. He is a player that comes to work every night, and he not only works hard on the ice, but on the bench and in the room as well, as he is LA’s captain, and was nominated for the Mark Messier Leadership Award along with the Blackhawks’ own Jonathan Toews. Brown is one of the Western Conference’s most physical forwards, along with players such as David Backes and Joe Thornton. If it wasn’t for the stellar play of goaltender Jonathan Quick during last year’s run to the cup, Brown would have received the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP.
Brown is a player that stays focused on the task at all times, and knows what to do at both ends of the ice. He will drive the net with huge strength and is always dangerous without the puck as he can be in a passing lane at anytime. How will the Blackhawks combat this? The duty will fall on the shoulders of the defense once again. Paired with a strong backcheck from the forwards that will take away potential passes, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and co. will have to guard the net at all costs. Brown is dangerous from the goal line too, as he demonstrated against the San Jose Sharks in Round Two, so the boys in red will have to be aware of him at all times. If he is on the rush, the lanes will have to be taken away for a potential pass, and he will then have to be forced out wide, where Corey Crawford can handle the easy fodder. A bonus for the ‘Hawks would be to get under the skin of the Kings’ captain, which is not an easy task, but will be very beneficial. Dave Bolland has to regain the form he had the last time the Blackhawks made it to the Conference Final, where he earned the nickname “The Rat” after pestering Joe Thornton all series on the way to a ‘Hawks sweep. If Brown is in the box, it leaves Darryl Sutter without one of his best penalty killers, and this could spell trouble for LA, as the Hawks powerplay showed signs of waking up in the later games of Round Two.
Drew Doughty is the kind of defenseman most NHL clubs wish they had, and some are lucky to have. For the last 3-4 years, Doughty has been one of the League’s most consistent blue-liners, omitting a slow start to the 2013 season. He exhibits his ability to jump up into the rush often, where he is very proficient, as the Blackhawks found out earlier in the 2013 campaign where he went through five red shirts and dished to a team-mate for the goal. Doughty is also a massive physical presence, and has the ability to put the hurt on opposing players with good clean stand-up checks. Doughty joined Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith on the blue-line of the 2010 Olympic gold-medal winning team at the Winter Olympics.
Doughty has lots of ways he can contribute to the Kings, besides offense. The Blackhawks offense, notably the top six, will have to solve him just as they solved Ryan Suter and Niklas Kronwall earlier in their run. Short passes are key, and they will need to enter the zone with speed, instead of dumping and hoping they can beat Doughty on the chase, as those chances are slim. If Brown’s first line is not on the ice, setting up in the offensive zone will be the most productive method of getting pucks to the net. With less-skilled players covering the heavy shots off the sticks of #2, #7, and #4, they will be able to get the puck to Jonathan Quick, and Doughty will be forced to keep the big bodies of Viktor Stalberg, Bryan Bickell, and the gritty Jonathan Toews from the blue paint. When Doughty starts the rush, he will need to be pressured immediately to avoid another back-breaker off the rush, and when the puck is not in any particular possession, the Blackhawks need to work the 2-1-2 forecheck to perfection as they did in games Six and Seven against the Red Wings.
If all of this comes together in Round Three, the only thing the Stanley Cup Champions will be holding come the end of June is a golf bag. With some help from their fans, genuine and recent alike, the Blackhawks could certainly have a berth in the Stanley Cup Final. Eight wins to go, but these next four are the ones that are important right now.
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