On Monday night, May 26, 2014, the Los Angeles Kings beat the Chicago Blackhawks by a score of 5-2 to take a commanding 3 games to 1 series lead in the Western Conference final. The Kings can now wrap up the series on Wednesday night in Chicago, and earn themselves the opportunity to play for the Stanley Cup for the second time in three seasons. The Kings dropped the first game of this series against Chicago, but have now won the last three. Most impressive, is how they are winning these games. Since the third period of Game 2, the Kings have outscored Chicago 14-5. This is not about "smoke and mirrors", this is about one team playing decidedly better hockey than the other. Jonathan Quick has been strong in net for the Kings, but the real edge is at center ice. Chicago's Jonathan Toews, and L.A.' s Anze Kopitar are two of the premier centers in the NHL. One may call that matchup, even. The real difference is in the three centers whom play behind those star centers for their respective teams.
Chicago has Michal Handzus, Andrew Shaw, and Marcus Kruger, while the Kings counter with Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, and Jarret Stoll. Simply put, the former are no match for the latter. Since Carter moved to center during the San Jose series, L.A. now has the best quartet of centers in the NHL, bar none. The coming of age, of Carter's young wingers Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson, has not made life any easier for opponents. Toffoli is a shifty, sneaky quick goal scorer, while Pearson is developing a north/south game reminiscent of John Leclair. Kings GM Dean Lombardi's philosophy is to have a team with strong goaltending, strong defense, and strong in the middle of the ice. He has done that, and it is causing matchup headaches for Chicago Head coach Joel Quenneville. In fact, for Game 4, Quenneville changed all of his line combinations. It was to no avail. Kings Head coach Darryl Sutter prefers to roll all four lines, all game long, if at all possible. Since Carter moved to center, Sutter has been able to do just that. There is no dropoff, no matter which center is on the ice. Sutter does not bother matching lines, he just lets his boys play, and keeps rolling the lines. Looking at the way this series is going, it appears as though the Blackhawks are out of moves. This battle of wits between these two future Hall of fame coaches, is leaning heavily in favor of Darryl Sutter.
Said Sutter after Game 4, "We have veteran centermen. All four of them have obviously been here for a while. You know, they take care of both ends of the ice. They pretty much run the game for us as centermen. We ask our centermen to do that, and they do a good job of that." That said, no matter the outcome of this series, you can bet the Blackhawks will be looking to upgrade at the position of center, during the upcoming offseason.
Playoff notes: The Los Angeles Kings lead the NHL in playoff goal-scoring. The top five active scorers in the playoffs, are all from the Kings (Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Marian Gaborik, Justin Williams and Drew Doughty). Gaborik (10 goals) leads the NHL in playoff goal scoring. Kings defenseman Jake Muzzin (5 goals) leads all NHL defensemen in playoff goal scoring. The term "built for the playoffs", has become almost cliche', but one need look no further than the Los Angeles Kings, for a practical application of the term. One of the lowest scoring team during the regular season, becomes the highest scoring team in the postseason. This does not happen by accident. This postseason run is the sum of all the work put in honing and fine tuning during the regular season. Playoff hockey is a completely different animal. Many fans become completely enamored with high-scoring regular season teams. All I can say is, there is a reason why the Stanley Cup final does not feature the Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks every other season. My praise for the Kings, does not mean Chicago is chopped liver, but during playoffs, weaknesses are exposed and exploited. Last year, between the shortened season, and various injuries, the Kings never really found their rhythm, and were rather soundly defeated when they finally met a complete team (Chicago) in the Conference final. This season, things are much different.
This is not the last time Chicago and L.A. will meet in the Conference final. Within 3 to 5 more years, this may become the premier modern-day rivalry in the NHL.