The Chicago Blackhawks have an opportunity on Thursday to grab a stranglehold on their best of seven series with the Los Angeles Kings.
Unfortunately, they also have an opportunity to lose their grip completely, which would be the case if they were to come back to the United Center on Saturday night with the series tied at 2-2.
With those opposing possibilities in mind, the Hawks will hit the Staples Center ice down one of their best players in Duncan Keith and also facing a Kings team that has now won 15 straight games on home ice.
In order to win, they are obviously going to need their defensive players to step up in Keith’s absence, and they will also need star players like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews to help push the tempo offensively against a Kings team that is slowly growing in confidence.
Over the past six periods of this series, the Kings have not only been fairly evenly matched with the Blackhawks (with the exception of the second period in Game 2 and the third period of Game 3, in which the Hawks had an edge), but they have finally been able to exploit some of the same weaknesses that the Detroit Red Wings exposed in their series with the Hawks.
The Kings have been aggressively forechecking the puck in the past two games, and they have aggressively backchecked in the neutral zone as well. Couple that with the physical edge that the Kings have over Chicago, with guys like Dustin Brown and others roaming the ice, and you can see why the Hawks should be wary about the matchup tonight.
There is one area in particular that the Hawks could be able to take advantage of against the Kings. In Game 3 especially, the Kings’ defensemen were very aggressive early and often in the game, with guys like Slava Voynov and Drew Doughty taking tons of shots and really pushing the puck up the ice.
The way the Blackhawks can counter that is actually the same way that they can counter the Kings’ neutral zone pressure: by utilizing the stretch passes that they used so effectively against the Red Wings in the final three games of that series. The Hawks, especially with guys like Johnny Oduya and Brent Seabrook, can get the puck up the ice quickly to speedy forwards like Brandon Saad and Viktor Stalberg, and that ability to stretch out the Kings’ defense could be pivotal in a game that they won’t be able to rely on the quick transition ability of Keith on the blue line.
Finally, the Hawks are going to need a strong game out of Corey Crawford in net. He has been able to do that for the most part in these playoffs, but short the team’s best defensive player, the pressure will be on him even more. He will need to show the rebound control that he has displayed over the team’s last several games because of the Kings’ aggressive tendency to put on netfront pressure, and if he does, it will make life easier for the Hawks’ defensively.
All in all, this game is a real gutcheck for the Hawks in more ways than one. Can they come back and win after a lackluster effort in the first two periods of Game 3? Can they survive the loss of Keith? Can guys like Kane and Toews finally light the lamp? All of these questions will be answered when the puck drops, and it will tell fans a lot about whether or not Chicago has what it takes to win this series.