Series Review – Blackhawks Dethrone Kings to Reach the Stanley Cup Finals
Heading into their Western Conference Final, both the Chicago Blackhawks and the L.A Kings were brimming with confidence. After striding past the Minnesota Wild in the opening round of the playoffs, the Hawks had proved most of their doubters wrong with a stunning comeback against a surprising Detroit Red Wings, recovering from a 3-1 series deficit to advance in seven games. It was a similar story for the Kings, after showing great resilience to power past the St Louis Blues 4-2 in round one, they were asked to show all of their Stanley Cup winning mettle against San Jose. They responded in superb fashion, goaltender Jonathan Quick finding his Conn Smythe winning form at the perfect time to carry his team to victory.
Ahead of tonight’s Game One with the Boston Bruins, this post takes a look back at how a Chicago roster with simply too much depth to handle and with stars shining bright, trumped L.A in five games to earn a shot at Sir Stanley’s Cup.
In the opening period of Game One, the Blackhawks learnt two things that most of the hockey world already knew; if Jonathan Quick can see the puck he’s more than likely going to save it and if your defence falls asleep, the Kings will punish you. Despite outshooting L.A 17-2, Chicago trailed at the first intermission. After a string of fine saves from Quick, though most with a lack of traffic in front of the net, sloppy play in their defensive zone led to Dave Bolland’s rushed clearance rebounding off Justin Williams and into the empty goal; his fifth tally of the postseason.
Despite the frustration, the Hawks continued to plug away and received some excellent saves from Corey Crawford. Then, with 7:31 remaining in the second, they were rewarded with an equaliser, courtesy of an uncharacteristic mistake and after getting bodies to the crease. After a Marian Hossa pass led to a quick transition into the Kings zone, Patrick Sharp dropped the puck back to Johnny Oduya, whose low shot proved too much for Quick to handle. The juicy rebound was poked home by Sharp to level it at 1-1, his eighth goal of the playoffs.
The goal gave the Blackhawks even more momentum and this push led to the game-winner with three minutes left in the second. Great effort from Bryan Bickell on the offensive cycle, before getting the puck back to Duncan Keith at the point. The defenceman’s booming shot was redirected past a helpless Quick by Marian Hossa, the goaltender screened by plenty of players in the slot. Despite a spirited response from the Kings in the third, outshooting the Hawks 8-5, Crawford showed patience in net to make the necessary saves. The sheer intensity and speed of their offensive onslaught had given Chicago a deserved 1-0 lead in the series.
The Blackhawks doubled their series lead by dominating Game Two from start to finish, even forcing Kings coach Darryl Sutter to replace Jonathan Quick with number two goaltender Jonathan Bernier.
Chicago took the lead with only two minutes gone in the first, well-timed pinching by Nick Leddy turned the puck over, Viktor Stalberg slid a pass to Andrew Shaw and the forward burst past the L.A defence before firing a shot past Quick to open the scoring. It was 2-0 with less than a minute left in the period, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa taking advantage of a 2-on-2 breakaway. The Hawks captain laying a pass off to Brent Seabrook who was joining the rush, the defenceman’s blistering slap-shot finding the left corner of the net.
Bryan Bickell added a third on the power-play during the second period, the centre taking up position right in front of goal before tucking the puck between both his own and Quick’s legs to score. The end of the reigning Conn Smythe winner’s night then came when Michal Handzus fired a shot through him to make it four, joined in a 2-on-1 breakaway by Patrick Sharp. Though the Kings scored two consolation goals, Jeff Carter tapping home short-side on Crawford with a minute left in the second and Tyler Toffoli finishing neatly on the man advantage in the dying moments of the third, Chicago comfortably took a 2-0 lead ahead of a trip to the Staples Centre.
The third instalment in the series was a complete reversal of the two before, the L.A Kings were the team bringing intensity to their attacking play and pressure in the neutral zone. The Blackhawks meanwhile, struggled to find any rhythm on offence and wilted under the physical assault.
Justin Williams opened the scoring after the Kings had pinned the Blackhawks deep in their own zone at the start of the first. The veteran instinctively found space, controlled a sharp pass from Slava Voynov before sweeping the puck past Corey Crawford for his second of the series. L.A then made it 2-0 midway through the second, Tyler Toffoli with an incisive move to carry the puck towards goal before back-handing through the crease. Defenceman Slava Voynov continued his stunning postseason by firing home the loose puck for his fifth goal, the shot taking a strangely flat trajectory after his stick snapped. The Blackhawks got back into the contest on the scoreboard with 33 seconds left in the period, Bryan Bickell taking the puck from behind the net before spinning and tucking home a shot to Quick’s right.
An out of sorts Chicago performance really picked up in the final period, but when a chance appeared, Quick’s response was superb. One save, in which the goaltender denied Bryan Bickell from point blank range with his blocker, was out of this world. Dwight King added an empty netter with seconds remaining to seal a 3-1 victory for the Kings in which they had out-shot, out-hit their opponents and dominated face-offs. The defending champions now only trailed 2-1 in the series.
In many ways, Game Four was the deciding encounter in this series. Chicago had been completely outplayed in Game Three and the L.A Kings had extended their home winning streak to 15 games. The Blackhawks were also without star defenceman Duncan Keith, who had been suspended for one game after a high-stick on Jeff Carter; many wondered if both the d-unit and special teams could cope in the absence of such an integral player. Many also began to talk of the Kings ability to play from behind and questioned the lack of production from Patrick Kane. The Hawks’ answers were resounding.
Through periods one and two, the Kings twice took the lead before being pegged back by a persistent Chicago, who unlike in the previous contest, seemed to enjoy the physical challenge. Slava Voynov opened the scoring with yet another postseason goal four minutes into the first. After the Hawks defence got drawn in deep, the defenceman received the puck in space and blasted an effort past Corey Crawford. The Blackhawks equaliser had an air of fortune, Bryan Bickell purposefully carrying the puck into offensive zone before firing a knuckle-shot which tamely beat Jonathan Quick. L.A regained the lead just over two minutes into the second, direct play from Jeff Carter who spun the puck past Nick Leddy and Dustin Penner tucked in his third goal of the playoffs. Their advantage was cancelled out at the end of the period, when Niklas Hjalmarsson’s shot was tipped beneath Quick by Bryan Bickell and Patrick Kane finished from right on the goal-line to make it 2-2.
Chicago took control 70 seconds into the third, a period in which they out-shot the Kings 9-2. Johnny Oduya with his Duncan Keith impression, sending a instant pass to Michal Handzus who burst into the offensive zone. Showing wonderful patience on the 2-on-1, the veteran slid the puck across to Marian Hossa, who blasted home the game-winner. The Blackhawks were now in perfect position heading back to United Centre, holding a 3-1 series lead.
Game Five was a tale of star players coming up with big plays when needed most, one star player in particular; Patrick Kane. The hugely talented forward, who was doing his invisible man impression through the first three games of the series, reminded everyone what he is capable of producing as it took double-overtime to finish the series.
Returning from his ban, it was Duncan Keith who opened the scoring. The defenceman flying through the neutral zone before driving a shot which squirmed through Quick’s five-hole. It was 2-0 to Chicago before the first intermission, Patrick Kane pouncing vulture-like after a scramble in front of the L.A net, before showing great patience to shoot high past both defencemen in the crease and a sprawling goaltender.
The Kings simplified their game in the second period and hauled themselves back into the contest. Dwight King scoring his second of the series shorthanded on Corey Crawford after wonderful play from Justin Williams. Then after taking advantage of a power-play opportunity early in the third, they were level at 2-2. Anze Kopitar scrapping for the puck in front of Crawford before sliding home only his third goal of the postseason; remarkably underwhelming numbers for a player of his talent. In typical style however, the Hawks responded again to regain the lead. Pressure from Bryan Bickell allowing him to turn over the puck, before playing in Patrick Kane, who fired high past Quick for his second and a 3-2 score line. It looked like the end for L.A but it wasn’t. With 9 seconds left in the period, Mike Richards tipped an Anze Kopitar shot past Corey Crawford to stun the United Centre and take the game to an improbable overtime period.
After the first extra period wasn’t enough to settle things, it was left to the star duo of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews to end the series on a 2-on-1 breakaway. After poor pinching from the Kings defence, Toews chose the perfect moment to slide the puck to his winger and Kane made no mistake with a rapid release that sent the Chicago crowd into delirium. The goal completely a tremendous treble for Kane, the first hat-trick in a conference championship-winning game since Wayne Gretzky’s 20 years ago.
Keys to the series:
– Brian Bickell. The monstrous centre was simply unplayable at times in this series, and the L.A Kings had no answer for his presence in front of the net. He finished with three goals and four assists in the five games and was an effective distraction whenever he stepped on the ice.
– Home advantage. This has been a factor in each of the Blackhawks’ series so far, courtesy of their exceptional regular season finish. In this series, they jumped out to a 2-0 lead at the United Centre meaning they only had to split the games in California to have a chance to clinch the series on home ice, something they managed with a huge game five victory. The win at the Staples Centre in Game Four also broke the Kings home winning streak, which was devastating considering their inability to win on the road, finishing 1-8 for the postseason and scoring only 14 times.
– Crawford’s pretty quick too. Corey Crawford’s performances were instrumental in this series and although accused of giving up soft goals too often, showed a calm nature which seemed to feed into his team’s play. Whilst Jonathan Quick had a pretty miserable time, Crawford made huge saves at crucial times, including on a breakaway during Game Four which could have swung the whole series on its head. He now has the lowest goals against average at 1.74 and second lowest save percentage at .935 (behind Tuukka Rask’s 9.43) of all goalies in this year’s playoffs.
– Depth. The Chicago Blackhawks have the deepest roster in the NHL this season, they proved it throughout the regular campaign and it is proving vital in the playoffs. With goal-scoring threats on every line, even when superstars such as Toews, Kane, Sharp and Hossa struggle, someone-else always seems to produce. In contrast, the loss of Mike Richards for three games after his injury in Game One and the mere shadow of Anze Kopitar that we’ve seen this season seemed to severely affect the entire atmosphere of the team and they were unable to compete with the Hawks at either end of the ice.
– Blinded by stars. The superstar players were excellent in the final two games in particular after looking out of sorts for most of the postseason, Patrick Kane scored four times and looked dangerous whenever in possession, whilst Jonathan Toews finished the series with three important assists.
– Speed. This match-up of styles simply did not suit L.A. Unlike the series against St Louis, where they faced a team who employ similar tactics of getting the puck in deep, the Hawks are a transition team full of talent, capable of switching between defence and offence in an instant. The Kings struggled to cope with this facet of Chicago’s game throughout the series and it led to several goals on the rush. The possession and skating abilities of the Hawks’ defencemen also meant that they were able to nullify most of the Kings’ attempts to build pressure in the offensive zone.