The Chicago Blackhawks are safely into the Western Conference Final for the second year in a row after beating the Minnesota Wild in a 2-1 overtime thriller on Tuesday night. But just like after their last series victory, they still don’t know whom they’ll be facing in the next round.
That’s because the Freeway Face-Off between the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks still hasn’t wrapped up. The Ducks, who lost the first two games of the series on home ice, have won the last three games to give themselves a chance to clinch a berth in the conference final against the Blackhawks.
But eliminating the Kings hasn’t proven to be an easy task. The San Jose Sharks had four different chances to knock off the 2012 Stanley Cup champions in the first round, but they ended up becoming just the fourth team in NHL history to blow a 3-0 series lead in a best-of-seven series.
The Ducks and Kings are set to battle on Wednesday night in Game 6 of the series at Staples Center, but before they duke it out, Blackhawks fans are likely asking themselves a simple question: which team do the Hawks match up better against?
As we’ve seen through these playoffs for the Blackhawks, regular season performance isn’t predictive when it comes to how they’ll fare against an opponent. The Blues and Wild both beat the Blackhawks three times during the regular season, but the Hawks picked up series victories against both foes. The Hawks carried a combined 5-0-1 record against the Kings and Ducks during the regular season, sweeping Los Angeles in the process, but considering that their last game against either team was on February 5th, those contests are hardly relevant.
Judging by the two teams’ performance so far in these playoffs, the race is a tight one in terms of a “better matchup.” The Kings have a no-quit attitude that they’ve displayed throughout the postseason, but their offense has been maddeningly inconsistent. They’ve gotten some great scoring out of Marian Gaborik, but their offense has ebbed and flowed throughout the postseason.
They got red hot against the Sharks in the first round and carried over the momentum to the second round, but they struggled in Games 3 and 4 to get anything going in that department.
The Kings have a physical edge to their game, and that can cause problems against a team like the Blackhawks, as it did against the Wild. Los Angeles can really hamper a team’s efforts at zone entry, and even if an opponent gets past the blue line, guys like Drew Doughty and Slava Voynov are often there to clean up the mess.
As for the Ducks, they have been getting some scoring out of their depth players, with guys like Devante Smith-Pelly stepping up his game along with stars like Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. They are a team that loves to play a physical game, but they’ve got some speed too, and that mix of abilities could pose a Boston Bruins-esque challenge to the Blackhawks if the two teams end up meeting in the Western Conference Final.
The big knock on the Ducks is that they seem to retreat into a shell too easily against opponents when they get a lead. In Game 4 of the series, they grabbed a 2-0 lead against the Kings early on, but they completely stopped playing offense through the rest of the game, getting outshot 19-3 as they seemed content to let rookie goaltender John Gibson fend for himself. That passivity isn’t something that has much of a place this time of year (although the Blackhawks have been as guilty of it as anyone), and the Ducks have got to avoid that temptation to protect leads against a team like the Blackhawks.
In the end, the Ducks end up being the team that is probably the best match-up for the Blackhawks. The Kings not only have the experience factor on their side, having won a Cup as a huge underdog in 2012, and they have a goaltender in Jonathan Quick who is as capable of getting hot as any other keeper in the game. The Ducks have a ton of talent and play a very tough defensive game, but their offense lends itself to a more free-flowing affair, and that could favor the Hawks as they have the blue liners to turn that aggressiveness into transition offense the other way.