The calendar has flipped to June, but instead of focusing on vacation plans and enjoying the warm weather, the Chicago Blackhawks will begin their Western Conference Finals series with the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday afternoon.
The series, with a compacted three games in four days schedule thanks to Rolling Stones concerts at the United Center, is one that has been dissected in every conceivable way by every pundit in the hockey world, but in just a few short hours, the puck will drop and all the talk will be put into action.
Before that happens, however, the question has to be asked: what do the Blackhawks need to do in order to accomplish their Coup d’état and dethrone the Kings? There are three strategies and game plan elements that the team needs to execute in order to win the series, and while most would read as common sense, there are good reasons that they should be emphasized by head coach Joel Quenneville and his staff.
Think QUALITY , Not QUANTITY
The Kings have been outshot by their opponents in eight of the 13 playoff games they’ve played, but they have a 5-3 record in those contests.
The way a team accomplishes that is by executing a two-pronged strategy. The first, of course, is to have a ridiculously talented goaltender manning the net behind you, and they certainly have that in Jonathan Quick. The other and equally important piece to that puzzle is to force opponents out to the wings of the ice, rather than the middle, and therefore create lower quality scoring chances that can easily be snuffed out by said sterling keeper.
The Blackhawks ran into that strategy in the second round of these playoffs against the Detroit Red Wings, so they should be familiar with it. The problem is that getting around that kind of pressure will not be easy. They are going to have to use their quickness to get around the massive defenseman that the Kings are capable of putting on the ice, and that is no easy task.
With guys like Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane, who have both displayed excellent puck handling skills even under duress, the Hawks can execute their game plan of getting plenty of shots to the net to go along with traffic from guys like Bryan Bickell and Jonathan Toews, but they are going to pay a heavy price to do so.
As the old saying goes, the best things in life are the ones you sacrifice the most for.
Don’t Overtax the PK Unit
The Blackhawks have had a ridiculously successful penalty killing unit in the Stanley Cup playoffs, allowing only one goal in 12 games, but they are running into a Kings team that is deploying an effective power play to counter it.
The Kings scored five times on the man-advantage in 18 opportunities against the San Jose Sharks in the second round, and the big blow came in the second game of the series. Late in the third period, the Sharks committed back to back penalties, and gave the Kings, trailing by a 3-2 margin at that time, a lengthy 5-on-3 chance.
The Kings responded by scoring twice in a span of 22 seconds, turning the game from a potential series-shifting victory by the Sharks into an emphatic slam dunk of home-ice dominance that carried over through the rest of the series.
The Blackhawks may have the talent to counter the Kings’ power play unit, but the defending champions have proven that they can take advantage of opportunities, and the Hawks shouldn’t play with fire if their intent is to win the series.
Give Corey Crawford Adequate Support
Playing goalie in the NHL is hard enough, but when you are faced with screens and picks set by the type of lumbering behemoths that the Kings can deploy, it can get downright impossible.
Crawford has shown an ability in these playoffs to move laterally in his net and square the puck up most of the time, but he has a bit of an issue with rebound control that times. Against the Kings, that could be an issue, because they have players like Dustin Brown and Justin Williams who thrive on getting good ice position and tapping in easy rebounds with their lightning quick hands.
The onus for stopping that from happening falls on defensemen like Brent Seabrook and Michal Rozsival, who will need to do a good job of clearing the pressure from in front of the net using their physicality on a constant basis.
As we’ve seen from both players, they can have off-days, but it’s those kind of lapses that the Kings will exploit, and the Blackhawks cannot allow them to do that.