Let’s get this out of the way right off the top. The Los Angeles Kings are not this much better than the Chicago Blackhawks. They are deeper at forward, much deeper at center and better in goal, but Chicago’s top-end skill is unmatched, and its blue line is battled-tested.
Which begs the question: Why have the Kings outscored Chicago 15-5 in the last six periods and two minutes of this Western Conference Final to take a 3-1 lead after Monday’s 5-2 win at Staples Center?
For one, L.A. is on one of those rolls that coaches and fan bases dream about — one that can be partially attributed to that rally from a 3-0 deficit in Round 1 against San Jose. After averaging 2.42 goals a game in the regular season, L.A. is averaging 3.39 per game in the postseason. The addition of Marian Gaborik does not change a team’s offense that dramatically; L.A. is just white hot.
But there’s a second half to this equation, and that one examines the character and will of a defending champion. Chicago has had little-to-no net presence in the aforementioned time frame, and the Blackhawks have simply been outworked by a hungrier team.
Granted, the ‘Hawks have some deficiencies that will need to be addressed in the offseason if GM Stan Bowman hopes to turn one of the best eras of Blackhawk hockey into its golden age. The ‘Hawks lack toughness. They did a poor job of moving or even contesting traffic in front of goalie Corey Crawford in Saturday’s Game 3 loss, almost appearing unwilling to do the dirty work.
They can’t do much about the fact their No. 2 center spot is a revolving door of ill-equipped players from Michal Handzus to Marcus Kruger to even Patrick Sharp, who has performed such a marvelous disappearing act in this postseason that some wonder if he is playing hurt. But Chicago needs more from Sharp and star Patrick Kane (one assist in this series). Chicago can do a better job of getting pucks to the net instead of dancing endlessly with the rubber on the tape. And the Hawks must get more traffic in front of Kings goalie Jonathan Quick or L.A. will drive home the final dagger on Wednesday at United Center.
For our money, L.A. is the best team in the league. We picked them at the start of the season to win it all. The trade-deadline addition of Gaborik and the maturation of forwards Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson have only cemented that belief. But Chicago has won two of the last four Stanley Cups. A five-game, blowout exit is not the stuff that champions are supposed to be made of.
PLAY OF THE DAY
Gaborik’s redirect:Duncan Keith might yet win the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman, but this wasn’t his best moment. L.A. center Anze Kopitar stripped him of the puck in the far corner and fed Gaborik, who had beaten a slow-recovering Brent Seabrook to the slot. Gaborik’s deflection slipped through Crawford for a 2-0 L.A. lead midway through the first period.
Muzzin pulls a fast one: As Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa went hard to the net from the right side with the game still scoreless, L.A. defenseman Jake Muzzin got away with shoving Hossa into Quick. Hossa was whistled for goalie interference — a poor call — and Muzzin scored on the ensuing power play nine minutes into the first period to get L.A. off and rolling.
1. Drew Doughty, D, Los Angeles. Doughty had a goal, an assist, five blocked shots and 23:55 of ice time.
2. Anze Kopitar, C, Los Angeles. Kopitar’s aforementioned strip of Keith was one of two primary assists on a plus-2 Monday. Kopitar leads the postseason with 17 assists and 22 points.
3. Justin Williams, RW, Los Angeles. With two more assists, Williams moved into a tie for fourth place among the postseason’s top point-producers with 15 (the three players ahead of Williams are all Kings). With three more points, he will tie a career postseason high.
Key stat: The Blackhawks are 1-11 all-time when trailing 3-1 in a series. The one win came last season in the second round against Detroit.
Key player: Crawford. The goalie really can’t be faulted on any of L.A.’s goals — he got very little help from his defensemen who didn’t move anyone out from in front of him. But the guy Chicago and national writers have been calling a big-game goalie has been anything but in this series. Big-game goalies make a few saves they’re not supposed to; that’s how they win. Crawford hasn’t. He allowed four goals on just 20 shots Monday, and the Hawks were in too big an early hole from which to dig out.
What we learned: Special teams are carrying the Kings and killing the Blackhawks. Los Angeles’ power play is 5 for 12 (41.7 percent) in this series against what had been the postseason’s top-rated penalty-killing unit. Chicago’s power play — with all that high-priced skill — is 2 for 13, and 0 for 7 on the road. The ease with which the Kings are getting pucks to the net and traffic in front of Crawford is stunning, given Chicago’s success in preventing that through the first two rounds. The inability of Chicago to do much other than pass pucks around the perimeter on its own man-advantage must be maddening to Blackhawks fans. It’s funny how all the advantages of the regular season can fade into a war of special teams and goaltending in the playoffs. Despite Chicago’s mantra of needing to stay out of the penalty box, the penalties in this series have been basically even (Chicago actually has one more power play). Chicago just isn’t getting it done on special teams and it’s not getting big saves from Crawford, who was brilliant in the first two rounds, but has allowed 14 goals on 108 Kings shots for an .870 save percentage in the first four games of this series.
Next game: Game 5, Wednesday at Chicago, 8 p.m. ET
The draw of an L.A.-New York Stanley Cup Final might not fulfill its ratings potential if it happens this season — the Kings don’t necessarily draw as well as some other teams in the NHL. Nonetheless, the idea of pairing the United States’ two biggest TV markets would be a heck of an exclamation point on the NHL’s current success (the Rangers currently lead Montreal 3-1 in the Eastern Conference finals). The league is assured long-term labor peace, there is stable ownership atop nearly all 30 franchises, revenue is climbing and the playoff product has been superb. There are even whispers of expansion into more non-traditional markets like Las Vegas. Having the king of the Sun Belt teams in another Stanley Cup Final against North America’s media capital would be commissioner Gary Bettman’s equivalent of famed Boston Celtics owner Red Auerbach’s victory cigar.