Western Conference Finals Preview

The Blackhawks won their 1st round playoff series in five games by defeating the Minnesota Wild, four games to one.  However, the Blackhawks were pushed to the brink by the Detroit Red Wings, coming back from a three games to one deficit and winning their 2nd round playoff series in Overtime in Game 7.

The Kings won their opening round series in six games by defeating the St. Louis Blues after spotting the Blues the opening two games, storming back to win four consecutive games in what proved to be a physical and often termed chippy playoff series against the sandpaper-tough Blues.  The Kings then won their 2nd round series in seven games against their division and Northern California rival, the San Jose Sharks, a series in which the home team won their respective home game in the series.

The Blackhawks won their 2nd round series in non-conventional fashion when compared to their President’s Trophy regular season by obtaining scoring from their supporting cast:  Andrew Shaw, Bryan Bickell, and Michael Frolik – while their captain and leader, Jonathan Toews, struggled to score.  Although Toews registered three points in two of his last three games, he only registered three assists and no goals during his first nine playoff contests.  Similarly, Marian Hossa struggled to score during the first four games of the 2nd round series with the Red Wings by scoring one goal and no assists during that span.  In fact, their other elite offensive weapons – Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp – also struggled against the stingy Red Wings defense, buoyed by the stellar play in net by Jimmy Howard.  In fact, it was Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford who carried the Blackhawks to their 2nd round triumph, posting a Goals Against Average (GAA) of 1.48 and a Save Percentage (Save%) of .949 during their last four playoff games.

Similarly, the LA Kings struggled to score goals during both playoff series rounds, with their usual top guns – Jeff Carter, Anze Kopitar and captain Dustin Brown struggling to put the puck in the net.  Much like last season’s Stanley Cup title run, they relied on Conn Smythe (Stanley Cup Playoffs Most Valuable Player – MVP) trophy recipient Jonathan Quick.  Quick has posted an overall GAA of 1.50 and a Save% of .948 and a GAA of 1.01 and Save% of .961 during the past three playoff contests.

This series also has all of the makings of a classic battle of the Kings’ stingy defense, its sublime goaltending as well as timely goal-scoring by its forward lines against a Blackhawks squad which has one of the elite sets of forward scoring lines, a dependable blueline corps and a goaltender who has dispelled any concerns brought on by his previous season’s playoff struggles.  This playoff series also serves as a chess game of two of the NHL’s best veteran head coaches in the Blackhawks Joel Quenneville and Kings bench boss Darryl Sutter.

I offer my predictions by assessing each team’s offense, defense, special teams, goaltending and finally each squad’s “X-Factor” – the intangibles that could decide the outcome of this series.  I will then conclude with my prediction as to how I see this series playing out – who wins the series and in how many games they will do it.

Here’s the Rundown:

Offense

During the regular season, the Presidents Trophy (NHL’s best regular season record) winning Blackhawks possessed one of the NHL’s best offenses, finishing 2nd in the NHL in goals scored and goals scored per game, averaging over three goals per contest.  As mentioned above, the Blackhawks slipped somewhat against the Red Wings and rank 6th in goals scored per game of the 16 playoff-qualifying teams with 2.67 goals scored per game.  Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp have lead the way during the playoffs with 11 points, each with Hossa scoring five goals and dishing out six assists and sharp pacing the Blackhawks with seven goals and four assists.  As it relates to blueline scoring, Duncan Keith has been the only Blackhawks defenseman to register more than three points during their first two playoff series, although Johnny Oduya has scored two goals during the playoffs.

The LA Kings once again mystified observers with their struggles, offensively, during both the regular season and the playoffs, particularly considering the offensive weaponry of their forwards lines in Justin Williams, Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Dustin Brown and Jeff Carter.  Richards has paced the Kings in scoring during the playoffs with two goals scored and eight assists while Carter has paced their playoff goal-scoring with five goals.  Carter, however, is a streaky goal-scorer and can deposit pucks into the net in bunches.  The Kings defensive corps scoring is a two-man tandem in Slava Voynov and one of the NHL’s elite defensemen in Drew Doughty.  The Kings currently rank 11th in playoff goals scored per game with 1.94 goals scored per game after finishing 10th overall in regular season goals scored per game.

Although the Blackhawks star forwards struggled in their 2nd round playoff series, the assessment as to which team gets the advantage is…

Advantage:  Blackhawks

Defense

The Kings do possess some solid defensive players who can execute a ‘stay at home’ philosophy, with Jake Muzzin providing staunch defense and shot-blocking while Robyn Regehr providing similar defensive prowess and overall toughness.  Their remaining defensive corps greatest strengths are their puck-moving capabilities and ability on the man advantage (Power Play), with Doughty and Slava Voynov.  While the Kings dropped from 2nd to 9th in goals allowed per game during the regular season, they find themselves once again at the top of the playoff standings in fewest goals allowed per game with a stingy 1.48 goals allowed per game.

The Blackhawks defensive corps finished the regular season as the NHL’s stingiest bunch, allowing a mere 1.98 goals allowed per game.  Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson are their leading stay-at-home defensemen and shot-blockers while Johnny Oduya continues to provide solid veteran leadership.  Offensively, during the regular season, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook paced the blueline scoring although Seabrook has struggled offensively during the playoffs save for the Overtime series and game-winning goal.  In the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Blackhawks rank only behind the Kings in goals allowed per game with a solid 1.78 goals surrender per game average.

Although both teams possess the two best defensive corps remaining in the playoffs, the Kings defensive acumen, particularly during the past two post-seasons, gives the advantage to…

Advantage:  Kings (Slight)

Special Teams

To assess each teams overall special teams play, they are mirror images of each other.  The Blackhawks struggled at times on the man advantage during the regular season, finishing 19th on their power play conversion rate with a 16.7% success rate and a similar conversion rate during the playoffs of 16.2%.  They are lead by Kane who registered eight Power Play goals during the regular season while Hossa leads in Power Play goals during the playoffs with three goals.  The Kings finished 10th in Power Play Conversion success with a 19.9% conversion rate on the power play and a nearly identical playoff conversion rate of 20.0%.  Dustin Brown lead the team in both the regular season and in the playoffs in Power Play tallies.

Regarding the Penalty Kill, the Blackhawks finished 3rd in the NHL with a stout 87.2% kill rate.  Not far behind were the Kings who finished 10th on the penalty kill, with a kill rate of 83.2%.

In the playoffs, the Blackhawks have been nearly perfect, killing off 97.65 of opponents Power Play opportunities.  The Kings are solid with a 86.0% kill rate during the playoffs, but, if convention holds during this round of the playoffs, the clear advantage on special teams goes to…

Advantage:  Blackhawks (slight)

Goaltending

Much like their special teams play, the teams are mirror images as it relates to goaltending, both in the regular season and in the Stanley Cup playoffs.  Although Crawford and Ray Emery finished 3rd and 2nd, respectively, in the NHL regular season GAA statistics, Crawford has seized the reigns in net during the playoffs.  Crawford also finished 6th in Save% during the regular season while Emery finished 10th in the same category.  In the playoffs, Crawford ranks 3rd in both GAA and Save%.

While Quick had mediocre regular season goaltending statistics, 17th in GAA and 34th out of 42 goalies during the regular season, he also hasn’t missed a beat during this season’s Stanley Cup playoffs, ranking 1st in Save% with a .948 Save% and 2nd in GAA at 1.50 goals surrendered per game.

When assessing each team’s goaltending units, this one goes to…

Advantage:  Kings

X-Factor

For the Kings, it’s not as much about their regular season finish as it is to qualify for the playoffs as was proven last season, winning the Stanley Cup as the Western Conference’s 8th playoff seed.  However, unlike last season when they were amazing on the road during the playoffs, the Kings are 1-5 this season on the road.  The Blackhawks, however, may have received the wake-up call they so desperately needed by their narrow escape of the 7th seeded Red Wings after going down three games to one.

One intriguing factor to watch in this series will be whether the Kings and particularly Quick can shut down the Blackhawks high-octane offense.  Although the Kings continue to struggle with scoring and now on the road during the playoffs, Quick has been a veritable stone wall, once again.  The Blackhawks will have to mount immense pressure and put hoards of pucks on net to have success.

So when assessing the X-Factor, this one’s also very close to call, but the advantage goes to…

Advantage:  Kings (slight)

Prediction

While the Blackhawks could surge after escaping a near 2nd round disastrous exit, the Kings appear to maintain the savvy that comes with being the defending Stanley Cup champions, relying on recent experience to guide them through this tough matchup.

Although the Blackhawks treated their fans to a regular season to remember, the pressure would appear to be the greatest on the Blackhawks.  This series will come down to the Blackhawks trying to unlock the ‘Quick Brick Wall’.  The key to winning the series could be if the Blackhawks can win at the Kings home venue, the Staples Center.

Given all those variables, here’s the guess:

 Kings in Seven Games

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    [...] SPORTS BANK/INSIDE HOCKEY: Ed Cmar has his predictions for the Conference Finals. The lateness of these pieces is my fault, [...]