|ESPN.com: NHL Playoffs 2014||[Print without images]|
It tells you something about the Los Angeles Kings and the Chicago Blackhawks that despite playing in the conference with a deeper pool of legit contenders, they've found a way to stage a reprise of last year's Western Conference finals.
"It's going to be a tough matchup; Chicago is a very, very good team as everyone knows," star Kings blueliner Drew Doughty said Friday night. "We're a very good team, too. We know the things and reasons why we lost last year, so we need to fix those things."
And like last year, the Kings enter the Final Four after surviving a grind to get there, a pair of seven-game series that gave them the California State hockey title with wins over the Sharks and Ducks. Mind you, they didn't have to get on a plane in the second round, so that helps their fatigue level.
But the Kings are the Kings, always refusing to die, 6-0 this spring in elimination games, erasing a 3-0 series lead against San Jose and a 3-2 series deficit versus Anaheim, showing once again why they're one of the NHL's toughest outs the past three years.
In fact, they've now played 52 playoff games over three playoff years -- the most by any NHL team during that span -- a Stanley Cup in 2012 followed by back-to-back trips to the Western Conference finals, showing they are built for this time of year.
"I mean, we're not playing for the conference finals, so it feels good now but we've got one goal in mind. It's not a secret," Kings star center Anze Kopitar said Friday night.
The Blackhawks, meanwhile, had their biggest test in the opening round when they went down 2-0 to the powerhouse St. Louis Blues but rallied to win that series in six games. It was an impressive way to get things going. The Minnesota Wild probably gave Chicago more of test in the second round than most would have predicted, but handing the Wild their first home loss of the postseason to end the series was sweet.
The Blackhawks enter the Western Conference finals in a pretty positive frame of mind.
"I mean the first one was a pretty strong matchup against St. Louis," Hawks goalie Corey Crawford told reporters in Chicago on Friday. "Maybe something you could see later on in the playoffs. We came out of that series with a lot of confidence, winning that. Playing Minnesota, that was a strong team that definitely gave us a test, to win in Game 6 was really important I think to get the extra rest. Winning the way we did, too, on the road, after losing two in their building, that gave us even more confidence for this next series."
Kings: Anze Kopitar
The NHL's leading playoff scorer goes head-to-head with another stud two-way center in Jonathan Toews of the Hawks. Both were nominated for the Selke Trophy along with Boston's Patrice Bergeron this season for the top defensive forward in the NHL. Kopitar just went head-to-head with Hart Trophy finalist Ryan Getzlaf and won that battle, so let's hope people around the league have realized by now that Kopitar stands with the very best centers in the world.
"Those guys are very hard to find," said Kings linemate Marian Gaborik, who has found tremendous chemistry with his center. "I don't think he gets the credit he should around the league. He's one of the top two-way players out there. It's been fun to play with him, of course."
Blackhawks: Bryan Bickell
After breaking out with 17 points (9 goals, 8 assists) in 23 playoff games last year, including that huge tying goal in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals, Bickell signed a $16 million, four-year deal, which certainly looked in line with the kind of power forward he became last spring. But then came this season, where he slumped to just 15 points (11 goals, 4 assists) in 59 games, and one wondered where that Bickell of last spring went? Ah, but then came spring again. Bickell is tied with Patrick Kane for the team lead with six goals in 12 games and has also posted three assists. He's back!
"I know we've been looking for Bick to get that consistency in his game here for some time,'' Hawks head coach Joel Quenneville told reporters in Chicago on Friday. "It was kind of like when he was in the minors and when he got here. Whether it was some shifts he was rolling, some shifts he was, we were looking for more. Probably throughout his career until he basically went to a whole new level in the playoffs last year that he seemed to put everything together.
"We've seen in this year's playoffs he's kind of very comparable of where he was last year. So, it's tough to say why. But as a staff and probably as an individual, we'd like to see, he'd probably like to be more consistent. We'd like to see more consistency out of him. But then again, you play like this in the playoffs, the most important time, and you rise to that challenge and you make an impact or an imprint on games the way he has, it's a great strength that you're able to play at this level.''
Kings: Justin Williams
Especially if there's a Game 7, right?
He did it again Friday night, opening the scoring plus adding an assist, which gives him six goals and six assists in six career Game7s. Simply amazing. Talk about clutch.
"He's a big-game player, a lot of people don't realize what Justin does for this team," Doughty said Friday night. "He's one of our best players. He doesn't get enough credit for it. I'm really for him to have continued the Game 7 trend he's got going."
Blackhawks: Corey Crawford
The Blackhawks goaltender was solid last spring in leading his team to the Stanley Cup, although he didn't really steal that many games, which is why he didn't warrant enough support for the Conn Smythe Trophy. Again, he had a solid season, his .917 save percentage 22nd among NHL goalies, but nothing that really grabbed your attention. But in these playoffs, he's been downright terrific, leading all NHL goalies both in save percentage (.931) and goals-against average (1.97).
He'll be going up against the best of the best in Jonathan Quick. So is Crawford getting enough respect around the league?
"Just seems like his job has gotten tougher and tougher over the last few years," Hawks captain Toews told reporters in Chicago on Friday. "Even him being a huge part of our Stanley Cup-winning team last year, it doesn't seem like it's getting easier for him. But he keeps rising to challenges, picking his game up and improving in so many ways, especially mentally, to be able to handle that pressure. I feel like after every game I'm answering questions about him and I joke I'm running out of things to say. But that pretty much sums it up right there with the way he's matured as a player."
Kings: Injured blue line
Somehow the Kings beat the first-place Anaheim Ducks missing two-thirds of the left side of their defense in Robyn Regehr and Willie Mitchell. They're not the same players they once were, but they're still important penalty killers. Matt Greene and Jeff Schultz have filled in admirably, but that's still a step down. Mitchell skated with his teammates for the first time at Friday's Game 7 morning skate, but it's still not clear what the timetable for his return is. We haven't seen Regehr on skates since he sustained an injury versus the Ducks in Game 1.
If there's any way the Kings get even one of those veterans back that's an important development. The wear and tear on Doughty & Co. over 14 games can't be overlooked.
Blackhawks: Forward depth
Is there a flaw with the defending champs? We asked that question to a Western Conference NHL head coach and here's his response via text message: "I would have said, do they really want to go through the grind, but now they are so close I don't think that's a flaw. They are pretty freakin' complete. Only thing maybe is not as much bottom-six (forward) depth."
Getting Andrew Shaw back would certainly be a big help in solidifying the Hawks' top nine. The injured forward hasn't played since Game 1 of the previous round versus Minnesota. Shaw did not skate Friday but Quenneville told media in Chicago that the team was hoping he would skate this weekend at some point.
The biggest flaw perhaps is that the Hawks haven't been consistent the whole postseason, especially coming in and out of their series versus Minnesota. They can't afford that against the Kings.
You hate to ever pick against the Kings because they just keep showing they know how to win at this time of year. But the short turnaround between series and the 14 games played ... I just think the Blackhawks are rested and have home-ice advantage, which might just be the sliver of a difference they need. But it's going to be awfully close. Toss-up of a series for me.
Blackhawks in 7 (plus overtime)
ESPNChicago.com's Scott Powers contributed to this report.