For the second time in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Chicago Blackhawks are hitting the road with a 2-0 series lead. This time, the victim is the Los Angeles Kings, who showed signs of life in Game 2 but were unable to dig themselves out of the early hole that the Hawks’ Andrew Shaw and Brent Seabrook helped put them in.
Even with this cushy lead, the Hawks still need to be incredibly wary. The Kings are a perfect 7-0 at home during the playoffs, and have made some strategic adjustments to their game as they will once again be without Mike Richards in Game 3.
Those adjustments mean that the Hawks will have to contend with a new top line for the Kings, and it’s a formidable one. Justin Williams, who scored both goals for the Kings in their Game 7 triumph over the San Jose Sharks, will be on the left wing along with Dustin Brown on the right wing.
Centering those two will be Anze Kopitar, who has been held pointless and to only three shots in the first two games of the series.
Kopitar and Brown seem to work well together (see their incredible production as linemates in the 2012 playoffs), and that has to be what Kings head coach Darryl Sutter is banking on in reuniting them. Brown’s physical game will be on full display as he tries to open up lanes for Williams, and Kopitar’s aggressive two-way game will help feed the puck to the speedy winger.
If the Hawks are going to have a shot in Game 3, that is the first thing that they are going to have to try to stop. The difficulty, obviously, will be that they won’t be able to dictate the defensive matchups against that group, as the Kings get the benefit of last line change as the home team.
That will also work against the Hawks on the offensive side of the puck, as the Kings will stack up defensively against the top line of Bryan Bickell, Jonathan Toews, and Marian Hossa. That grouping torched the Kings early and often in the first two games of this series, and seemed to get more pressure on Los Angeles than any other line did early on.
With that in mind, the Hawks will need to get more production out of their second and third lines in this game. The second line shouldn’t have too much difficulty in that regard, since Patrick Sharp has been lighting the world on fire so far in the series. The real question mark there is with Patrick Kane, who hasn’t really asserted himself in this series in the same manner in which he did so frequently during the regular season.
It will be partly on Kane to get things turned around in this game, but center Michal Handzus will also have some of the responsibility as well, as he is the one who is going to be setting the table for Kane and Sharp with his passing ability.
The third line of Viktor Stalberg, Andrew Shaw, and Brandon Saad will also need to come ready to play. They showed off a ton of speed and confidence in the first two games of the series, and looked positively divine in their passing on the Hawks’ first goal of Game 2. The youngsters will be under added pressure in a hostile environment at Staples Center Tuesday, however, and it will be interesting to see whether or not they will be able to handle the increased pressure.
Finally, the Hawks are going to need to do a better job of staying disciplined. In Game 2, the Hawks took a bunch of minor penalties, and that was due in no small part to the more effective offensive attacks that the Kings were deploying. Whether crisp tape-to-tape passing, or smarter shots from guys like Jeff Carter, the Kings were the superior team in terms of dictating tempo and pace for much of Game 2, and the Hawks need to do a better job of keeping their skaters in front of them.
If they don’t, we might see a rash of hooking and tripping penalties in this game, in a similar fashion to Game 4 against the Red Wings in the previous round. That means giving the Kings’ power play unit plenty of chances to establish momentum, and as they showed in the third period of Game 2, they do have the skill necessary to beat the Hawks in that area.
Those three keys aren’t exactly rocket science, but they are all crucial as the Kings should be expected to put forth their best possible effort on Tuesday night. The Hawks won the first two games of this series thanks to largely sticking to their game plan, and that discipline will prove to be a huge deciding factor in whether the Hawks will have a chance to clinch on Thursday, or if they will be looking to prevent the Kings from tying the series up.