FACEOFF: 2pm Central
TV/RADIO: NBC, 87.7 FM
Seems so familiar. A presence we haven’t felt since… well, last year.
The Kings roll into the United Center a mere 40 hours after clocking a fellow California team in a Game 7, though this time the Hawks only needed six games in their previous round. And that’s starts a bit of a train of things that are different this time around, which is going to make for a very tough series.
The first thing that isn’t like the other is that the Kings do not come in here beat up as they were, at least we think so. Last year almost every center for the Kings was missing or was carrying something. Anze Kopitar couldn’t lift his arms above the elbow, Mike Richards would get run over by Dave Bolland and miss the next three games, Jarret Stoll barely returned, and on it went.
Not so this time. Kopitar might be your leading Conn Smythe candidate and has torn a hole in the world with linemate Marian Gaborik so far. Richards is healthy but on the 4th line (what a luxury). Stoll and Jeff Carter seem to be mostly at full-strength, though there are whispers about Carter. If the Hawks center depth is going to be a problem, it will be a problem this series.
Another variation on last year is that the Kings are deeper on the wings than last time. Justin Williams, one of the best possession players in the league the past three years, is on the third line. That’s thanks to the addition of Gaborik and rookie Tanner Pearson, who is skating on the second line with Tyler Toffoli and Carter and that unit looks for all the world to be the one to do the best Haula-Fontaine-Cooke impression, except with a lot more talent. When Gaborik and Kopitar haven’t been ripping out hearts and eating them while still beating, it’s been these guys.
So we know Q will probably throw Toews at Kopitar in a matchup that should have every hockey fan drooling. But at Carter’s line? Handzus might disintegrate trying to keep up. Regin with Saad and Versteeg? Awfully outsized. Kruger’s reconstituted Human Shield line? Replace “Handzus” with “Bollig” in the sentence above. It’s an issue.
Want something similar to last year? Ok, I can do that. The Kings’ blue line below Drew Doughty is still something of a question. In fact, Doughty is a question because after turning the Sharks into whatever color he damn pleased he only managed two points against the Ducks, and some will tell you he’s carrying an injury. Whether he is or not, Jake Muzzin, Slava Voynov (who’s been terrible), Matt Greene, Alec Martinez and Jeff Schultz are not going to give the Hawks much pause. Silly Martinez and Voynov pinches and beating the rest to the outside most definitely are on the menu.
But the question is will the Hawks have the puck enough to consistently get at the Kings blue line. They didn’t against the Wild and were bailed out by Corey Crawford and moments of individual brilliance. Well, here comes perhaps the league’s best possession team, though they did have their off nights against the Ducks and let Jonathan Quick bail them out.
The Hawks simply will not escape their own zone as easily as they did in last year’s WCF. Last time, when it was the somewhat plodding Kings’ wingers coming after them, they could move the puck or their feet quickly enough to bypass the forecheck. It’s a different story when it’s Gabbo, Toffoli, and Pearson coming to dinner instead of King, Clifford, and Williams. Combine that with the yippiness we’ve seen from all seven Hawk d-men at different points this series instead of the assuredness of last year, and it’s going to be an adventure. Not one they can’t overcome, but it’s going to look ugly at parts. Unless the Hawks have been waiting for this moment to turn on all the lights and gizmos, but I doubt that’s the case.
Oh, and the Kings power play is humming thanks to Gaborik. It’s moving along at a 22% clip, so this will be a much bigger challenge than the blank stares of Minnesota and St. Louis.
The whole series basically hinges on how well the Hawks can retrieve and breakout, because the Kings’ attack, even with its new toys, isn’t all that much more sophisticated than it was. It’s still about getting the puck deep, causing a ruckus below the goal line and then recycling the puck back to the point or to the net. Once they gain possession they’re a little more spicy, and they can turn mistakes at their blue line into dangerous rushes the other way with all the new speed they have. So the collective case of diphtheria the Hawks have had in trying to get through the neutral zone this spring–trying to skate through three guys or bypassing it all together with another missed Hollywood pass–has to be out the window this series. If the Hawks pile up the icings as they’ve done they will get clocked at the dot, and you don’t want Kopitar and Gaborik piling up time in your zone.
Strap yourselves in. This will be a much bumpier ride.
If you’re not going to today’s game, pick up a copy of today’s game program from us, The Committed Indian. If you are, we’ll be at all four corners of the arena selling hard copies.