The Chicago Blackhawks will look to finish off a remarkable comeback on Sunday night if they can knock off the Los Angeles Kings in Game 7 of the Western Conference Final.
A win would mean that the Blackhawks would not only overcome a 3-1 series deficit for the second consecutive season, but it would also mean that they would reach the Stanley Cup Final for the second straight year as well.
How can they get there? We address that question in this Game 7 edition of Three Keys to Victory.
Top Two Lines Must be On Their Game
When the Blackhawks hit United Center ice on Sunday morning for their morning skate, their line combinations looked just a bit different in the bottom six. Marcus Kruger was promoted to third line center, skating between Patrick Sharp and Ben Smith, while Michal Handzus was manning the fourth line with Brandon Bollig and Kris Versteeg.
What those combinations tell Hawks fans is simple: head coach Joel Quenneville plans on riding his top two lines really hard, using his third line for all other shifts, and relegating the fourth line to essentially also-ran status. It wouldn’t be surprising at all to see Bollig and Versteeg rack up fewer than six minutes of ice time each in the game, and Handzus’ ice time will be dependent on how many Hawks’ penalties the team has to kill off.
What it also means is that the top two lines are going to have to be at their absolute best despite the increased workload. Guys like Patrick Kane seem to thrive on the pressure of being used as often as he is, and if his linemates Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw can keep up with him, then that will give the Blackhawks a big boost as they try to eliminate Los Angeles.
Crawford Must Forget Game 6 Struggles
With his team ahead 2-1 in Game 6 of the series, Corey Crawford had a bit of a rough go, allowing two goals in the span of two minutes and six seconds in the third period to put his team down 3-2. Crawford did show some great resolve in the closing minutes of the game, but he still doesn’t look like his usual self in net, with positioning and rebound control still being question marks.
If the Blackhawks are going to win Game 7, then they are going to need Crawford to play like he did against the Vancouver Canucks in the final game of the teams’ 2011 first round series. In that game, Crawford gave up an early goal to Alex Burrows, but he ended up making 36 saves in a game that the Hawks ultimately lost. That ability to rebound from adversity and hold down the fort while the other team is going nuts really helps the Blackhawks, and a performance like that could be key Sunday.
Defensive Discipline Key as Forwards are Double-Shifted
With Quenneville likely opting to shorten his bench for this all-important game, it means that the forwards are going to be a bit more tired than they usually are. That could very well impact their effectiveness on the forecheck, and if that happens, then the Hawks are going to need their blue liners to step up.
Quenneville has been toying with the pairings a bit in previous games, but ended up reverting back to the standard groups as Game 6 went on. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook both seemed to enjoy their reunion, as did Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya, but the real key for the Hawks is that those groups don’t fall back into the bad habits they displayed earlier in the series.
Communication is going to be key between the defensive partners, especially if the Blackhawks come out of the gate with the same aggressive offensive approach that they did in Games 5 and 6. Pinching defensemen have to make sure that the blue line is covered either by a forward coming back or by their defensive partners, because if they don’t, then the Kings could turn the tables very quickly with their quality transition game.