The Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks square off for the right to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup final. Eric Duhatschek breaks down the series to see who has the edge heading into Game 1 on Saturday in Chicago.
For the second consecutive playoff series, it will be old-home week for Los Angeles Kings head coach Darryl Sutter, who will be a pivotal presence. After the Kings narrowly defeated the San Jose Sharks – a team Sutter coached for 434 games – in the second round, they now play the Chicago Blackhawks, where he grew up as a person, player and coach.
Sutter isn't much given to personal reflections in the midst of the NHL playoffs, but he noted at practice this week that, in Chicago, he was a "young guy, old guy, single guy, married guy, [and] a guy with children."
As for Chicago, where he played all 457 games, regular-season and playoff, of his NHL career, it is a town with "lots of sports. Two baseball teams, a football team, a great basketball team and a really good hockey team."
It is that really good hockey team, the Blackhawks, on which he's focusing now. The 'Hawks won two out of three from the Kings this season, but the first game could be easily dismissed – the season opener, at Staples Center, on the afternoon of L.A.'s championship banner-raising, a game played without Kings top centre, Anze Kopitar, who was recovering from an injury suffered playing in Sweden during the lockout. The other two games were one-goal decisions.
L.A. and Chicago currently run Nos. 1 and 2 defensively in the 2013 playoffs. Five of the seven games in the Sharks-Kings series had the same final score, 2-1, and that should be a popular result again.
Sutter suggested that, based on Chicago's start this season (undefeated in regulation through the first 24 games), "every team prepared at some point to play the Blackhawks because they knew they were going to be a home-ice team."
The Kings won the Stanley Cup last season, in large part because of their road dominance, going 10-1 to set an NHL playoff record for the longest road win streak in one postseason (10 games) and tying the league mark for most road wins in one playoff year.
It has been the opposite this year, with the Kings having won a franchise-record seven consecutive home games (eight including last year) and 14 in a row, but on the road, they are just 1-5 in the playoffs, after posting a mediocre 8-12-4 mark in the regular season.
The Kings will need to win at least once at the United Center if they intend to get back to the Stanley Cup final. Or as Kopitar noted: "We're going to have to do it on the road eventually."
Each team will have a little bit of insight into the other.
Chicago assistant coach Jamie Kompon worked on Sutter's staff last year, before being let go in the off-season (he was replaced by former St. Louis Blues head coach Davis Payne).
Kings centre Colin Fraser won a Stanley Cup with both teams, Chicago in 2010, and Los Angeles last year, and says he will share whatever information he can with his teammates to help them get a better read on the Blackhawks.
THE REGULAR SEASON
Jan. 19 at Los Angeles: Chicago 5, Los Angeles 2
Feb. 17 at Chicago: Chicago 3, Los Angeles 2
Mar. 25 at Chicago: Los Angeles 5, Chicago 4
The Kings have just one forward in the top 25 of playoff scoring: centre Mike Richards (10 points in 13 games). Just as they did last year, the Kings rely on scoring by committee, one reason why captain Dustin Brown is playing on the third line. The whole left side has just three even-strength goals in the playoffs.
Chicago centre Jonathan Toews finally got on track offensively in the second round, scoring his first goal of the playoffs, but the offence has primarily revolved around Patrick Sharp (seven goals) and Marian Hossa (five). Bryan Bickell has been unusually effective, with five goals in little more than 12 minutes of playing time per night.
Slava Voynov leads the Kings in even-strength goals (four), part of an effective right side that includes Matt Greene. Drew Doughty, who is eating up nearly 28 minutes of ice time per night, almost six minutes more than No. 2 man, Rob Scuderi.
The decision to reunite Duncan Keith with Brent Seabrook midway through the Detroit Red Wings series paid big dividends for the Blackhawks, with Seabrook bouncing back from a tough start in the series to score the overtime winner Game 7. Seabrook and Nick Leddy are tied at minus-5 for worst on the team.
The Kings' Jonathan Quick (1.50) and the Blackhawks' Corey Crawford (1.70) are first and second, respectively, in goals-against average. Quick had a so-so first half, recovering from off-season back surgery, but has been exceptional in these playoffs, while Crawford has been rock solid from the start of the season.
Patrick Sharp-Jonathan Toews-Patrick Kane
Bryan Bickell-Michal Handzus-Marian Hossa
Brandon Saad-Andrew Shaw-Viktor Stalberg
Marcus Kruger-Dave Bolland-Michael Frolik
Duncan Keith-Brent Seabrook
Johnny Oduya-Niklas Hjalmarsson
Nick Leddy-Michal Roszival
Kyle Clifford-Anze Kopitar-Justin Williams
Dustin Penner-Mike Richards-Jeff Carter
Dustin Brown-Trevor Lewis-Dwight King
Brad Richardson-Colin Fraser-Tyler Toffoli
Robyn Regehr-Drew Doughty
Rob Scuderi-Slava Voynov
Jake Muzzin-Matt Greene
Chicago – No injuries to report.
Los Angeles – C Jarret Stoll, concussion, day-to-day.
Blackhawks, ranked 10th in the playoffs, six goals in 37 opportunities, 16.2-per-cent success rate, zero short-handed goal allowed.
Kings, ranked sixth in playoffs, seven goals in 35 opportunities, 20-per-cent success rate, one short-handed goal allowed.
Blackhawks ranked first in playoffs, one goal allowed in 41 opportunities, 97.6-per-cent success rate, one short-handed goal scored.
Kings ranked sixth in playoffs, six goals allowed in 43 opportunities, 86-per-cent success rate, one short-handed goal scored.
Joel Quenneville is not afraid to mix and match lines within a game if the offence isn't clicking, meaning the players will likely move up and down the depth chart as the series takes shape, and no team tries harder than Chicago to spring a forward behind the opposition's defence with a 100-foot stretch pass.
Sutter is a no-muss, no-fuss straight-ahead coach, who believes in physical play, an aggressive fore-check and a disciplined two-way game. He has no patience for bad penalties.
Kings in six games.