With the Chicago Blackhawks on the verge of advancing to their second Stanley Cup Finals in four years, and with the Los Angeles seemingly gasping for air, there’s a question that is percolating in the minds of a lot of hockey fans in the Windy City:
Wasn’t this supposed to be a hard-fought, tightly contested series?
Sure, there are some revisionist historians in the Chicago media (looking at you, Terry Boers), but the fact is that just about everyone who had an opinion on this series thought that the two teams would be incredibly evenly matched, and that the battle would likely last six or seven games. With a goaltender like Jonathan Quick, and with the championship pedigree that the Kings have, it was assumed that they would give the Hawks their toughest battle yet of the playoffs.
In fairness, just about every game in this series has been decided by the slimmest of margins on the scoreboard, with only one contest being decided by more than one goal. Beyond that measure though, this series has been largely dominated by the top-seeded Blackhawks. They have had the upper hand in goaltending, offensive punch, and even on the defensive side of things.
Meanwhile, the Kings look like a team that has run out of gas after several hard-fought series against the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks. The Hawks have carved up the Kings’ defensive structure, and it has only been the largely mistake-free goaltending of Quick that has kept Los Angeles in the series.
Even more than the offensive dominance of the Hawks, the team’s defense has really been what’s frustrated the Kings. Granted, Los Angeles hasn’t been that great in scoring during these playoffs, but Chicago has put the clamps on them more than either of LA’s first two opponents could have hoped to have done. The Blues rely on a physical brand of defense, with a little dash of speed thrown in thanks to guys like Kevin Shattenkirk, and the Sharks generally try to get their transition offense going with outlet passes from their blue liners.
Those strategies, both effective in their own ways, can be counteracted by a smart tactician, and that is a title that can be affixed to Darryl Sutter. The Hawks, however, can change gears so quickly that it’s impossible for even the savviest of architects to edit their blueprints. They have the speed and tenacity in their forward group to forecheck and backcheck better than just about any team in the league. Their defensemen don’t make many mistakes, and even when they do they are backed up a goaltender that is growing ever-more confident as the playoffs wear on. They can send out guys like Bryan Bickell and Andrew Shaw to mix it up physically if the need arises.
With that many different weapons in their arsenal, it’s no small wonder that the Hawks have the Kings’ backs against the wall. Obviously, this whole narrative could change dramatically, because as the Hawks showed in the second round against the Detroit Red Wings, a 3-1 deficit is not insurmountable for a quality team, and the Kings are one despite their status in the series.
With two games remaining at the United Center, however, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the Kings come back and take down the series. If they do, many writers, including this one, will have to eat a lot of crow, but until those events come to pass, we are left to marvel at just how well the Hawks bounced back from the adversity they faced just a few weeks ago as they try to win another Stanley Cup for the city.