LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 03: Drew Doughty #8 of the Los Angeles Kings checks Patrick Sharp #10 of the Chicago Blackhawks off the puck in the third period during the NHL game at Staples Center on February 3, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. The Blackhawks defeated the Kings 5-3. (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
The Los Angeles Kings may have just knocked off the Anaheim Ducks in their second-round playoffs series, but they have barely had any time to savor the victory as their Western Conference Final series with the Chicago Blackhawks kicked off Sunday afternoon.
The two teams do have some familiarity with one another, as they met in last season’s Western Conference Final. The Blackhawks won that series by a 4-1 margin, but the Kings will have revenge on their minds. The question then is how can the Kings steal the series and put the Blackhawks in an early hole. In order to accomplish that goal, they will need to succeed in these three keys to victory:
Stay Out of the Penalty Box
The Kings’ penalty killing unit has been largely effective so far in the playoffs, but in their series against the Ducks, an interesting pattern emerged.
In their four victories over Anaheim, the Kings went 15-for-16 on the penalty kill, but in their three losses, they surrendered four goals and went just 4-for-8 when they were down a man. They did finish the series strong as they killed off the last eight power plays they allowed Anaheim, but that’s not a pattern they can expect to continue against the Blackhawks.
Not only does Chicago have players like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews lurking on the man-advantage, but they also have a couple of key players who like to camp out in front of the net. Bryan Bickell will be chief among those at least at first in the series, and when Andrew Shaw finally comes back from injury, he will likely resume his post at the top of the crease.
The Blackhawks have an effective power play strategy and the weapons to make it work, and if the Kings keep giving them chances like they did at times against the Ducks, it could be a recipe for trouble.
Vary Defensive Looks in the Neutral Zone
The Blackhawks may have beaten the Minnesota Wild in six games in the second round, but they didn’t do so easily. The Wild figured out some great ways to slow the Hawks’ transition game down through the neutral zone, and at times Chicago’s offense ground to a halt as a result.
If the Kings are going to have similar success to what Minnesota did, they will not only have to employ some great forechecking in the neutral zone, but they will have to mix up where they apply pressure. Sometimes a straight neutral zone trap is best, forechecking with the forwards as the Hawks try to bring the puck up the ice. Sometimes jamming up the blue line and forcing the Blackhawks to dump the puck in will be the best way to go. Even occasionally letting the Hawks bring the puck into the offensive zone, but forcing all of the puck movement to stay along the boards by dropping defenders into the middle of the ice will be the way to go.
However you slice it, variety is the spice of life when it comes to deploying defensive strategies against a great offensive team like the Blackhawks, and the Kings will have to keep their opponent on their toes if they want to find success.
Roll Four Lines As Often As Possible
With only one day off in between series and a cross-country flight to deal with, the Kings aren’t likely going to be the fresher of the two teams on the ice in Gmae 1. Add to that the fact that guys like Drew Doughty played extended minutes in the Game 7 victory over Anaheim, and it isn’t a stretch to say that the team might be a bit tired in Game 1.
To combat that, Darryl Sutter is going to need to roll as many different lines as he can. In Game 7, Tanner Pearson only played 6:10 of ice time, and Tyler Toffoli also played fewer than 10 minutes. Those numbers have to come up in Game 1, and even though that means the Blackhawks’ offense might see more opportunities to score early on, the Kings still have to be cognizant of the fact that they need to be as fresh as possible to try to keep the game close.