Tomorrow our beloved Chicago Blackhawks will take on the Los Angeles Kings in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals after a 3-1 victory in Game 1. Now that the snow spray has long settled from Sunday, it’s time to more intricately scrutinize what the Blackhawks are up against with the LA Kings, and what they’ll need in order to advance once again to the Promised Land that is the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Hawks are off to a great start, but this series is very far from over. Say what you will about the Kings, but any team that can come back from a three game deficit against their first playoff opponent and then force and dominate a Game 7 on hostile ice their following series possesses a dangerous resourcefulness. Hopefully the last series against the Minnesota Wild served as a warning to the Blackhawks that last year be damned, this is a whole new post-season with a whole new set of circumstances. The Hawks may have an early advantage, but we’ve all seen how quickly that can disappear in the playoffs. So here are four things the Blackhawks need to be make sure of if they’re going to once again dethrone the Kings:
#4 – Lower Lines Need to Shine Brighter
When you get two squads with crazy depth like the Kings and the Hawks facing off against each other in the playoffs, we all know how much of a difference the lower lines make when it comes to winning and losing. Usually the talent between the first and second lines of each team creates a wash, so it comes down to which team has the superior third and fourth lines to determine who moves closer to the Stanley Cup. This is old hat for the Hawks, but the same is true for the Kings. The Hawks’ lower lines need to be better than the likes of Tyler Toffoli, Justin Williams, and Mike Richards. Brandon Saad is off to a great start in this series, and he’ll need to keep up the production and then some going forward. Bryan Bickell needs to continue his usual playoff beast mode, and Andrew Shaw needs to hit the ground running upon his return from injury hiatus. Oh, and one thing that would just be super is if the Hawks’ fourth line can rekindle their regular season production. This series will be a four tier dog fight, and the Hawks need to be better all up and down the depth chart.
One thing that can be said about the Kings that can’t about other NHL teams that are booking tee times these days is that like the Blackhawks, their star players are delivering as they should. Marian Gaborik and Anze Kopitar are leading the post season in points and goals, and that’s a trend the Hawks need to curb right quick. So far so good; Gaborik only tallied 3 shots on goal in Game 1, and Kopitar was nowhere to be seen. This is a trend the Hawks need to continue. They’ve had success getting under the skin of teams’ top forwards before during the playoffs under the guidance of Dave Bolland, but now the Hawks’ lower lines need a new instigator to lead the harassment. If Shaw can get in the grill of Gaborik and/or Kopitar and do it without drawing dumb penalties like Bolland did in years past, hard-nosed Hawks like Brandon Bollig, Marcus Kruger, and even Peter Regin will rally to his banner.
#2 – Maintain Disciplined Physicality
One attribute about the Kings that is often given little press is how much they like to dish out the bodywork. Well they like to hit, a lot. LA leads the NHL with a whopping 662 hits this post season. Now this isn’t cause for immediate concern because the Hawks have beaten physical teams in the playoffs before by simply letting their speed and skill do the talking (the most recent example being the St. Louis Blues). However with the Kings, things are slightly different. Usually teams resort to physicality when they’re lacking in speed. The Kings however are not; they’re quite capable of running with the Hawks and running into them. The good news is that the Blackhawks may not always push back right away, but they do push back, and against LA they need to maintain their composure will dealing out bodily retribution. Against poorly disciplined teams, the Kings generated a lot of power play minutes on both sides. The San Jose Sharks totaled 38 penalty minutes (the highest for teams eliminated in the first round) and the Anaheim Ducks ranked second in penalty minutes this post season with 69, just behind LA. The Kings would love for a Hawks player like Brandon Bollig or Brent Seabrook to throw some ill-advised retribution their way that results in a suspension, so the Hawks need to make it be known they can go toe to toe with LA, and come up the winner. In other words, more Blackhawks players (hey Michal Handzus, you listening?) need to follow Marian Hossa’s treatment of Kings like Dustin Brown (see above).
#1 – Score First, Score First, Score First!
We all know how high the Blackhawks win percentage goes when they score first, but against a team like the Kings, drawing first blood is especially important. Thus far in the 2013-14 playoffs when the Kings allow the first goal, they have a win percentage of just .167. When trailing after one period, they are 0-4. When trailing after two periods, they are 0-5. Starting to get the picture? Let me put it this way: what’s the one thing in common amongst all the Blackhawks’ victories against the Kings during the regular season? The Hawks scored first in each and every one of those contests. Also, it must not be forgotten that Kings are the top defensive squad in the NHL, and if they’re protecting a lead behind their fortifications, they’re playing the game that want to play, especially given the bouts of subpar offensive generation they went through during the regular season. By scoring first, the Blackhawks are taking the Kings out of their comfort zone, plain and simple.
Remember, this is not the same Stanley Cup-defending LA Kings the Blackhawks played last year in the Western Conference Finals. They’re better. They’ve got more speed and more talent, and they’ve got the playoff experience to boot. In other words, there is a reason the Kings are playing the Hawks for the title of Western Conference Champion. The Blackhawks need to make sure those reasons don’t become excuses, and once again remind the Kings why the Western Conference Finals was their last stop in 2013.
FOR THE DAGGER!