Special teams success has Kings rolling vs. ‘Hawks

CHICAGO — Coming into the Western Conference finals, the Blackhawks had the top penalty-kill unit in the NHL after giving up just four power-play goals through two rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs. 

The Kings have converted on five power plays in just four games.

What’s wrong with the league’s best PK unit? The answer could be as a simple as meeting the league’s best offense.

"They’re getting through, had some better blocks," said Chicago head coach Joel Quenneville. "Maybe some better coverage going out to the points. And maybe they’re getting in a little tighter. Maybe that’s why they’re getting better looks."

Los Angeles currently has the best power-play percentage of the four playoff teams, converting 26.7 percent and scoring in three straight games against the Blackhawks. A streak that would have been unheard of during the regular season. 

Since the postseason, the Kings have simplified their power-play game, and it’s been effective.

"The big thing is trying to win the faceoff and get possession, then not over-pass the puck," said Kings head coach Darryl Sutter. "Kind of an old-time thing. Sometimes guys — because most of them are your skill players, your top-end guys on a power play — they pass it around. They go past their best opportunity. 

"You try to get them to simplify one or two passes, or where they shoot from or where the other team’s tendencies are from and make sure somebody is in front of the net."

But even more unheard of is Chicago allowing that many power-play goals. 

"I think we had great stretches all year with the PK having success," Quenneville said. "Sometimes they’re going to go in against you. I think we’re doing the right things to get us back on track."

New Faces, Same Game

Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli have added another dimension in the Kings’ offensive game that was not there when the Kings and Blackhawks met in the 2013 Western Conference finals.

But the biggest difference has been the addition of Marian Gaborik. He was the headliner and the biggest storyline for the Kings at the onset of the playoffs, and he hasn’t disappointed.

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Gaborik scored his league-leading 10th goal Monday night in Game 4 and needed only 18 playoff games to do so. Before coming to L.A., he had scored only nine goals in 36 postseason games over four different seasons. 

"He just gives us a threat that we didn’t have in the past, at least in my seven years here, before he got here as a left-shot, left-winger," said linemate Anze Kopitar. "Just like Justin said, he’s a big threat on the power play, he’s the type of player that can burn you within a couple seconds with one move."

But give credit where credit is due, playing next to Kopitar has elevated Gaborik’s game to another level. Kopitar, the playoff points leader, is the type of player that makes everyone else around him better. 

"It seems like every time he’s on the ice he calms everything down," said Kings’ forward Mike Richards. "Whether it’s just a point in the game where it’s hectic out there, we’re running around, he steps on the ice, he seems to have that calming influence on everybody, just the way he plays. 

"He’s a big, strong guy, he has skill, he’s really got it all. Then you put the emphasis that he does on playing on the defensive side of the puck, that really makes a special player."


Road Warriors

The Kings have now clinched two series on the road. With June fast approaching, there is no exact science as to what it takes to close out a third. Sutter said it’s an intangible, a feeling, something deep down inside you pull out to motivate you when think you have nothing left.

"There’s something extra there. Good teams, once in a while they get upset and injuries come into it. But when you’re a good team, and that’s what you talk about, May and June, and the players play better. They remember winning and they remember losing," Sutter said. "That’s the best part of a long run, is how good it feels and how bad it feels. Teams that just go in once in a while or make the runs once in a while or just make the playoffs, they don’t get that same feeling. 

"There’s something about winning it or losing it in the end that sticks with you. I think as an athlete that’s what motivates you more than anything."