NHL playoffs: Western Conference Finals roundtable
With the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings on tap for the right to advance to the Stanley Cup Final, SI.com writers Sarah Kwak, Brian Cazeneuve and Allan Muir offer their opinions on how they think this series will go, tactics they expect to see, Conn Smythe favorites, and the team from either conference that now looks best-equipped to win the Cup.
Allan Muir: Yep...the Kings surviving the first round. We all know how tough it is to repeat, and I thought the Blues were ideally situated to knock off the defending champs. Wrong. The good-but-not-great regular-season Kings have been replaced by a swaggering bunch of marauders who looked an awful lot like their unstoppable 2012 squad in knocking of St. Louis and San Jose, only this year they've proved that they can take a punch as well as they give one. And with the way Jonathan Quick is playing, I can't bring myself to bet against them.
Brian Cazeneuve: Not really from a Chicago standpoint. The Blackhawks had a nice sleepwalk through the first round and didn't wake up until Game 5 against Detroit. It may be out of their system now, so I'm expecting them to be the strong, deep club we saw for much of the year. However, unlike the Hawks, the Kings seem to build to this crescendo: slow start to regular season; slow start to playoffs. Even Jonathan Quick had his one blooper goal in overtime against the Blues. The Hawks have to keep playing better, because they will face a tougher defense and tougher goalie than they've seen in the first two rounds.
Sarah Kwak: Yes, plenty has happened in Chicago to get me second-guessing, though I'm still sticking with Chicago for now. Their offense has run cold for much of this postseason, and the Blackhawks, who scored an average of 3.10 goals per game through the season, have been slogging along at 2.75 through the first two rounds. But the conspicuous absence of their stars on the score sheet has been most surprising. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, who combined for 46 goals during the regular season, currently have three between them in the playoffs. If the Blackhawks are going to get past Jonathan Quick and the Kings, those two will have to be a big part of the equation. Now, why has it been this way? Because over the course of a seven-game series, teams can tailor their defensive schemes to isolate and bear down on individual players, and that's the kind of treatment Kane and Toews are getting. When either carries the puck into the zone, the other team is routinely collapsing on them, taking away their freedom to make plays or find space. Sure, it's opened up space for some of their teammates, but the young stars need to utilize those linemates better and cut down on turnovers in the neutral zone or on offensive zone entries.
Muir: I'm thinking six games and maybe 15 goals, total. It'll be a heavy, bruising, last-man-standing challenge that will test the will of both sides...but the Kings will pull it off with Quick outlasting Corey Crawford, and Anze Kopitar's line stepping it up against Toews and his crew.
Cazeneuve: I see it as a good home-ice series between two clubs that play better in their home buildings than almost any teams in the league. I also see the Kings trying to frustrate the Hawks the way the smaller Red Wings id, especially Toews. It's a blueprint for how L.A. should approach the series. The Kings will try to bump and thump Chicago all over the ice, and they will need to create and take advantage of turnovers to win this series. Unlike the clash in the East, I could easily see this going seven games.
Kwak: I think Kane and/or Toews will revive their offensive touch in this series. Of course, Los Angeles does have a stout defense and an excellent goaltender, but the talent that these two players possess will find ways to come out. The Kings will bring a physical game, but Chicago's skillful forwards, like Kane, are masterful at eluding the big check and turning it into an opportunity. So if L.A. gets preoccupied with physical intimidation, the Blackhawks are perfectly capable of turning that into a boon for their players.
Muir: The top storyline for me is: can the Kings win away from Staples Center? Last year they were a horde of pre-apocalyptic Mad Maxes, starting every series on the road and bringing home a 2-0 lead every time, leaving the dazed locals to wonder what hit them. This year? Totally different story. They're 1-5 on the road and can't score to save their lives. The Kings managed just three goals in a trio of losses at HP Pavilion in the last round and while they didn't look bad, they weren't quite as menacing. They have to take at least one at the United Center to get past the Hawks. I obviously think they will, but until they prove it ...
Cazeneuve: I really want to see how Darryl Sutter approaches his team's forecheck. The Kings' started out the playoffs by being very patient and meeting the Blues in center ice. Then they flipped a switch and employed a more proactive approach against San Jose that carried over to their hyper-aggressive penalty kill. Do that against the Hawks and they could stretch-pass you to death. Chicago is so good at finding gaps in your forecheck and creating odd-man rushes with speed through the neutral zone. If the Kings play to their own strength, they are also playing to Chicago's strength. Thus, the chess match.
Kwak: I'm excited to see the Blackhawks take on Quick, who has once again been very strong for the Kings. He leads the league with his spectacular 1.50 GAA and .948 save percentage, which are in fact better numbers than he put up last year. But Chicago's offense will put him to the test. The Blackhawks have been shut out just once this year -- albeit recently -- but they lit up Quick for 12 goals this season. I'll be interested to see if any of their regular season success will spill over into their series.
Muir: It probably says something about how the Hawks have gotten it done to this point that no one has built an obvious case for himself. Chicago wins when 19 guys are pulling in the same direction and they take turns playing lead dog (mush, Brent Seabrook!) You could make a case for Patrick Sharp, who has a share of the playoff goal-scoring lead and is tops in both shots and game-winners on the Hawks. But I'd give my vote to Crawford. I'm a sucker for a good comeback story, and what this kid has done this spring trails only Quick for sheer jaw-dropping wonder. It doesn't feel like he's stolen games in the same way that Quick has, but after allowing that brutal first goal against the Wild, he's been lights out. Yeah, he's the guy.
Cazeneuve: Goalies are always up for consideration when the Conn Smythe gets decided. Corey Crawford hasn't gotten enough credit for the way he's played lately. Unlike Quick, he's had to confirm his stamp as the team's No. 1 guy. He shared the load during the regular season with Ray Emery and has been an ace ever since. One other choice would be Patrick Sharp, who already has more goals in 12 games of the playoffs (7) than he had during 28 games of his injury-shortened regular season (6). Sharp lifted his game during the Hawks' Cup run in 2010 and he's doing it again now, as Toews and Kane have struggled to put up the numbers you would expect.
Kwak: See, the beauty of Chicago's excellent regular season was the fact that the team wasn't being carried by one or even two players. Every night during their run (that was sort of historic), there was a different guy leading the charge. They had nine players with 20-plus points this season, in a 48-game schedule. Only Montreal had more. So picking a Conn Smythe winner is a decidedly more difficult task, but if pressed, I'll also go with goalie Crawford, who has been a strong backbone for his team. With a 1.70 GAA and .938 save percentage through 12 games, he's enjoyed his best postseason by far after his career season.
Muir: Has to be the Kings, right? You can look at all four of these teams and see the building blocks of a champion: hot goaltending; depth up and down the lineup; experience; a strong system; and proven leadership on the bench and on the ice. With everything they have going for them, any one of these teams would be a worthy champ. But Los Angeles looks like a team that has just a little bit...more. Quick isn't just capable of winning games by himself -- he seems to thrive in the pressure-cooker, low-scoring affairs that the Kings always find themselves in. And there's so much confidence in that lineup. They still have the taste of victory in their mouths from last spring. They don't need directions. They already know the way.
Cazeneuve: As long as the Penguins have someone to stop the puck, I can't see anyone matching Pittsburgh's firepower, salvo for salvo. The steady play of understudy Tomas Vokoun has made up for the second chapter of the Marc-Andre Fleury meltdown. I do like the four-line depth that both Chicago and Boston have, which can pay off during a grinding seven-game series, and I'll put Quick up against any goalie in the world, but considering all that Pittsburgh can throw at you, I'll take the Pens.
Kwak: Again, I can't go abandoning my predictions now, so I'll stick with Chicago. The Blackhawks haven't played up to their standards yet this postseason, which is why I think once they do, they'll be just as unstoppable as they looked all season.