|Posted by Landon Ewaniuk on May 31, 2013 at 11:05 PM|
The most grueling of professional postseasons has peeled it's way down to just two pairs of surviving teams.
The 2013 Western Conference Final will boast two of the past three Stanley Cup winners, with the defending champion Los Angeles Kings taking on the 2010 Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks in a series that begins Saturday.
It was a season full of high's and short of adversity for the Blackhawks, who claimed the Presidents' Trophy with the top record in the NHL during the regular season. They began the year with a 5-2 victory over Los Angeles at Staples Center, raining on the Kings' first-ever Stanley Cup banner-raising ceremony. The win on opening day was the start of a 24-game points streak for Chicago- a new NHL record to start a season- that would extend until they were finally taken down by the Colorado Avalanche on March 8, almost two full months later.
The Blackhawks continued their winning ways throughout the lockout-shortened season, grabbing the No. 1 seed in the conference with a 36-7-5 record.
The Kings got off to a slow start through ten games, opening the year with a 3-5-2 record. But the defending champs soon discovered their legs, going 24-11-3 the rest of the way, including a season-high, six-game winning streak. They remained fairly consistent throughout, never losing more than two consecutive games in regulation from start to finish. Los Angeles claimed the No. 5 seed with a win over the San Jose Sharks on the final day of the regular season.
After falling in an 0-2 hole in the first round, the Kings rallied to eliminate the Blues with four consecutive wins. They were taken to seven games by their second-round opponent, the Sharks, but eventually prevailed thanks to home-ice advantage and a 2-1 win to end the series.
The Blackhawks cruised through the first round, eliminating the Minnesota Wild in five games, but like the Kings, their second-round series with the Detroit Red Wings was pushed to a seventh game. The Red Wings actually held a 3-1 series lead at one point, before Chicago woke up and stormed to three straight wins, ending Detroit's season with a 2-1 overtime win in Game 7.
The Blackhawks won the season series with the Kings, taking two out of the three games played. The only victory for Los Angeles came in a 5-4 triumph at United Center on March 25.
Chicago posses a threat on both sides of the ice. While their offense has been slightly unimpressive for most of the postseason, their defense and goaltending has remained near the top. The Blackhawks, who led the entire NHL in goals-against average during the regular season, rank second amongst playoff teams, with a 1.83 goals-against average.
The offense in Chicago has stalled a bit since the regular season ended. After producing at a high rate of 3.10 GPG during the season, their scoring has dipped to 2.75 GPG during the playoffs. But, with the likes of Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith etc. pulling the wagon, the Blackhawks have the ability to explode on the offensive end at any given moment.
Some of those key players have struggled through two full rounds to this point, which could spell trouble for the Kings. Kane and Toews have combined for just three goals in 12 postseason games, while Sharp has scored only once in the last six games after netting six in the first six playoff games.
Chicago's top offensive players are some of the best and most skilled in the world, and their struggles aren't expected to last forever. If their top-six skaters come alive in this series, the Kings will have a difficult time keeping the puck out of the net.
Goaltender Corey Crawford has been excellent in the postseason with a 1.70 goals-against average, and .938 save percentage through 12 games. Even while Chicago's offense struggled, they continued to win games with the exceptional play of Crawford. The Kings' offense has been less than impressive through two rounds, and a hot goaltender may be the Blackhawks' best weapon, but then again, Los Angeles did find a way to get past a red-hot Antii Niemi and the Sharks.
Los Angeles Kings
The Kings enter their third-round matchup leading the playoffs in defensive efficiency, sporting a stingy 1.54 goals-against average. They have been nearly unstoppable at home, extending their winning streak at Staples Center to 14 games, the last seven coming in the postseason. In seven playoff games at home, the Kings have allowed a total of eight goals, mostly thanks to the heroic goaltending of Jonathan Quick.
Unfortunately for Los Angeles, they will begin the conference final on the road, where they've won just once in six tries in the playoffs, all by a score of 2-1. But the defending champs have proven that even when they're outplayed, they still find ways to win, and fans have learned not to count them out.
While the Kings' offense has faired slightly better at home (2.6 GPG), they've scored just once in each of their six road losses in the postseason.
Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown led the team with 20 points apiece in last year's playoffs, but through 13 games this year, they have combined for just 11 points. Kopitar is the Kings' best playmaker, and if he's not scoring goals, he'll at least need to help generate offense with his first-line mates, Justin Williams and Brown. Los Angeles has the best big-game goalie left in the playoffs, but they'll need to score some goals against a good Chicago defense to help him out. With Quick between the pipes, Los Angeles is a very tough team to play against when holding a lead.
Jeff Carter leads the team with five playoff goals, and Mike Richards ranks first with 10 points (2 goals, 8 assists).
The Kings' defense has certainly come alive over the past month, with youngsters Drew Doughty and Slava Voynov stepping up their play. Los Angeles dealt with injuries all season long on the blue line, but in the end, it allowed Doughty and Voynov to play heavier roles and was key in their evolution as complete defensemen.
Veteran Robyn Regehr was acquired just prior to the trade deadline, and Matt Greene recently returned to the ice after missing most of the year due to a back injury, giving the Kings a strong stay-at-home mix on the back end. Both players are physical, heavy hitters, and both play an important role the Kings' penalty kill unit. Their size and strength will be key in playing physical against the Blackhawks.
The Kings are generally a very disciplined team, and they will need to stay away from bad penalties against a strong Blackhawks power play. Los Angeles has killed 19 of 20 penalties at home during the postseason.
Reigning Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick has been phenomenal in net for Los Angeles again this spring, posting a 1.50 goals-against average, and .948 save percentage through 13 games. He was amazing last year during the Kings' run to the Stanley Cup, and may be playing even better this time around. He seems to have fully recovered from offseason back surgery, and has returned to his stellar form from a year ago. The biggest key to this series will be the Blackhawks' scorers vs Quick. Chicago has the offensive power to cause problems for the Kings, but Quick has shut the door on opponents over the first two rounds.
The Kings and Blackhawks will begin their duel for this year's Clarence Campbell Bowl on Saturday at 2 PM PT (TV: NBC Sports Network).
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