The Western Conference Finals matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings is now just a few hours away. You would be hard pressed to find an expert or fan out there that doesn’t think this is destined to be a 6 or 7 game series. Let’s take a closer look at why this should be one of the most exciting series we will see in the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
I am not sure you are going to see a team check the Blackhawks Jonathan Toews better than the Detroit Red Wings did. The Wings assigned their two most skilled players, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, with the tall task of slowing down Toews. They exceeded in doing so for the better part of the 7 game series. I have long said that the key to slowing down the Hawks is to frustrate them. Sounds simple right? The problem is the Hawks are one of the best skating and most skilled teams in the league. To slow them down you must have the proper personnel to do so. The Kings have the firepower to not only skate with the Hawks, but to follow the Red Wings blue print if they choose that route. Forward Jarret Stoll is coming off a concussion and is a game-time decision for game 1. If he comes back 100% he will be a key in the faceoff circle and you can bet Kings head coach Daryll Sutter will be looking to have him on the ice at the same time as Jonathan Toews. For the Hawks, they will be looking to maximize the ice time that Toews and Patrick Kane get in games 1 and 2 by utilizing the last line change to look for matchup problems. Kane went largely unnoticed against the Red Wings. I am expecting a more focused and hard fought effort out of him in the conference finals. I believe the forwards are very closely matched, however I give a slight edge to the Kings due to their strength up the middle at center with Anze Kopitar, Stoll, and Mike Richards.
It will be interesting to see if Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville pairs Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook together again in game 1. I thought Seabrook was one of the most disappointing players in round 2. In fact I was about to tweet my thoughts on Seabrook during game 7 overtime moments before he scored the series-clinching goal. My personal opinion is Seabrook is hurt. He has looked slow, and more often than not, out of place. That’s why it is key for Quenneville to continue pairing Keith with Seabrook. The former Norris trophy winner is as steady as they come. If Seabrook is less than 100% he has the comfort level playing with Keith to not get out of position and truly play the role of stay-at-home defenseman. The Kings are also strong on the back-end led by Drew Doughty. Doughty loves to jump into the rush 5 on 5 and is a key for L.A. on the point for their power play. Another defenseman to keep an eye on is Slava Voynov. He may not get the attention that Doughty gets, but make no mistake he’s as skilled of a two-way defenseman as you will see in this series. Kings D man Rob Scuderi provides stability and leadership on the back end for the Kings. There’s a good chance he’s assigned to stop one of Chicago’s top two lines. Again, these two defensive units are as evenly matched as the forwards. I give the ever so slight edge to the Blackhawks due to their speed of Keith, Nick Leddy, and Niklas Hjalmarsson.
American born Jonathan Quick is an all world goaltender and is the leading candidate to guard the net for the United States in the 2014 Olympics. He may end up being the key to the series. Quick was unbreakable in the quarterfinals against the San Jose Sharks and turned in a stunning one goal performance in game 7. Quick loves to come out of his net to cut off the angles for shooters. A good way to beat that style is to put bodies in front of the net for rebounds. A player like Bryan Bickell could be key for the Blackhawks in front if he can make Quick uncomfortable and look for loose pucks and rebounds. The Blackhawks Corey Crawford has proven doubters wrong by turning in two strong series against the Minnesota Wild and the Red Wings. Crawford is prone to give up a soft goal from time to time. The key for him has always been how he recovers from the shaky goals. Both the Kings and the Blackhawks have highly skilled backups in case of injury or performance in Jonathan Bernier and Ray Emery. I doubt we see either of them during the series barring a disaster. The edge here has to go to the Kings. Quick is playing on another level and will be very difficult for the Hawks to beat. They need to play an “in your face” style of hockey if they hope to break him.
Both of these teams are recent Stanley Cup winners with the Blackhawks taking home hockey’s top prize in 2010 and the Kings winning the Cup just last year. Neither of these highly skilled teams are afraid of the big stage and both know what it takes to move on to the Finals. I too think this is a 7 game series waiting to happen. Both L.A. and Chicago have been unstoppable at home. Both teams will look to steal a game early on the other teams building. I see the Kings taking one in Chicago and I think the Blackhawks have the firepower to steal one back in L.A. These two teams are so evenly skilled and evenly matched. I am giving the nod to the Presidents Trophy winning Blackhawks. Game 7 home ice will be the difference maker in the series. The Chicago Blackhawks will dethrone the Kings in game 7 of the Western Conference finals to face the winner of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins in the East.
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