ANAHEIM AND LOS ANGELES, CA — At this time one year ago, the Los Angeles Kings went into the Western Conference Final (WCF) against the Chicago Blackhawks a bruised, battered and banged up team, as several players continued to play despite having suffered injuries earlier in the playoffs.
To make matters worse, center Anze Kopitar was in the midst of a 34-game scoring slump, the longest drought of his National Hockey League career, and it could not have come at a worse time.
This year, the Kings and Blackhawks will face each other in the WCF once again, starting today in Chicago (noon PDT on NBC in the United States; TSN and RDS in Canada).
Other than that, things are quite different this time around.
Kings Are Healthier
Even though veteran defensemen Willie Mitchell and Robyn Regehr are out of the lineup due to injury, the Kings are much healthier now, compared to when they faced the Blackhawks in the WCF last season.
“I think we’re more healthy, for sure, said Kings center Jarret Stoll. “Last year, there were some guys who were limping around out there. It was no secret that we were banged up, but I’m sure they were, too.”
Mitchell, who has been skating in recent days, is expected to return soon, maybe even today. But Kings head coach Darryl Sutter kept the usual mystery surrounding injuries going.
“He skated yesterday, he skated today,” Sutter told the media in Chicago on May 17. “When the doctors and the trainer and Willie come and tell me he’s ready, I’m open to that. That’s the way it works.”
As of this writing, Regehr has not begun skating.
Although the return of Mitchell would be a plus, as he usually is, Sutter was reluctant to risk praising an individual player when he was asked what the potential return of Mitchell would mean.
“[Mitchell] didn’t play for us last year,” Sutter noted. “He didn’t play Game 7 against San Jose. He didn’t play Game 7 against Anaheim. The kids we put in—Jeff Schultz came in the lineup, [and] has done a really good job for us.”
Kopitar Leading A Surprising Offensive Surge
Don’t look now, but the Kings, who ranked a rather dismal 26th in the league offensively during the regular season, scoring just 2.42 goals per game, have suddenly become an offensive juggernaut.
In the playoffs, the Kings have scored 3.21 goals per game, leading the league.
The key to this has been the play of center Anze Kopitar, who had a disastrous post-season in 2013, in terms of offensive production, scoring just three goals and adding six assists for nine points, with a -2 plus/minus rating in 18 playoff games.
But this season, Kopitar is sprinting in the opposite direction, with five goals and 14 assists for 19 points, with a +8 plus/minus rating in 14 playoff games.
Kopitar leads the NHL in post-season assists, points and plus/minus. But for that, a lot of credit goes to the new guy on the team, left wing Marian Gaborik, who leads the NHL with nine goals in the playoffs.
The opposition knows all too well what Kopitar and Gaborik are capable of.
“You’ve got one of the top two-way centermen in the league,” Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville told the media in Chicago on May 17. “They’re dangerous offensively. They’re responsible defensively. They play big minutes. They’ve been productive in the playoffs—not too many top lines have been scoring regularly.”
“It’s definitely a line we’ve got to be concerned with,” added Quenneville. “They’re dangerous off the rush. They’re dangerous in zone, as well. It’s something we’ve got to be aware of, but let’s make sure when they’re out there, hopefully we can make them spend some time in their end.”
“[Defending against the Kopitar line is] going to be a tough task, absolutely,” Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook told the media in Chicago on May 17. “The way they’ve been playing, I think they’ve got speed down the wing, they’ve got a guy in the middle of the ice that controls the play, [and] is able to do things that not a lot of centermen are able to do with his size and his speed, the way he can see the game and set his line mates [up].”
“Gaborik, the way he skates, definitely poses a threat and a problem,” Seabrook added.
While Kopitar and Gaborik are leading the way, right wing Justin Williams and forward Jeff Carter are also contributing. But what could be a key factor is that it appears that forward Dustin Brown and center Mike Richards are coming to life in the playoffs after slumping for the entire season.
Contributions on the scoresheet from Brown and Richards, not to mention them making their presence felt in am otherwise positive fashion, would be a huge boon to the Kings, and could tip the scales in their favor.
Don’t Forget The Defense
A big reason the Kings eliminated the Anaheim Ducks from the second round of the playoffs was that they found their missing-in-action defense, especially in Games 6 and 7.
More of the same will be needed against the high-powered, speedy Blackhawks.
“Yeah, they’re a tough team to play against,” Kings defenseman Drew Doughty told the media in Chicago on May 17. “They’re so good. They have so many good players. They have weapons at every single position. So, yeah, it’s going to be a battle out there again. We all know they beat us pretty good last year, beat us pretty handily. We have to learn what we did wrong and fix those things.”
“They have a lot of skill, good defense,” said Kopitar. “Usually when you play run-and-gun in a game with them, it’s not going to turn out very good for you.”
Blackhawks star forward Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews pose a serious threat.
“Playing those guys is tough,” said Doughty. “Every team has those tough guys that you relish going up and playing against. Some guys are tougher than others. These two in particular are going to be really tough for our defense and our forwards, as well. I look forward to playing against Toews and Kane and keeping them off the score sheet to the best of my ability. It’s going to be a battle, but I’m looking forward to it.”
Puck Possession Game Will Be Critical
During the 2013 WCF, the Kings had trouble generating a forecheck against the speedy Blackhawks, who ended up winning the puck possession battle.
The Kings know they must turn that around.
“I think we need to keep possession of the puck,” Doughty stressed. “The times we get in trouble is when we make a turnover, they’ll either draw a penalty, and their power play is lethal. They’ll score goals like they scored in the series last year.”
“We just want to keep possession of that puck,” Doughty added. “We want to get in and forecheck, rough it up in the corners. We want to be a physical team. I think that’s one thing—we can be more physical than them, no doubt about that. We have to keep the puck, make the right plays at the right times, not have as many turnovers.”
Although the Kings were bounced out of the 2013 playoffs by the Blackhawks in five games, revenge does not appear to be a big factor in their minds.
“I think each year is different,” Brown told the media in Chicago on May 17. “We’ve been through it before. I think what happens is the more you play teams in the playoffs the more you generally don’t like each other.”
“Last year they definitely had our number, dominated the series,” Brown added. “That’s not something you think about now, but it’s something in the back of your head.”
“We owe’em one,” said Doughty. “They beat us last year, and they deserved to beat us. It wasn’t like we played our best hockey. I thought they were pretty dominant in that series. We know how good that team is, and how good some of those players are, and how good their leaders are. We need every single guy on their team to play their best in order to beat them.”
Same Opponent, Different Result?
As mentioned earlier, the Kings were eliminated from last season’s playoffs in five games by Chicago during the WCF. They also went 0-3-0 against the Blackhawks during the regular season.
Those facts don’t exactly bode well for the Kings going forward.
“Our record during the regular season is not the best against them, but this is a totally different story now,” said Kopitar. “We’ve got to play with confidence, and [if we] play with the swagger that we usually play with, we should be OK. We can get it done. We believe [in ourselves]. That’s the most important thing.”
“It’s going to be a tough matchup,” said Doughty. “Chicago is a very good team. But we’re a really good team, too. We know the reasons why we lost last year. We need to fix those things. We just need to play better than them, plain and simple.”
“They’re a good team,” said Stoll. “They’re the defending champs, and we want to take that back. We know what it takes to win. We’ve tasted that, and it tastes pretty good, so we want to get it back from them.”
As for momentum gained from winning their previous series, guess again.
“We have to forget about the last series,” Doughty noted. “We’re definitely feeling confident in ourselves. We feel good as a team. We feel good as individuals. We definitely have to carry that over.”
“It’s going to be tough to steal one in their arena here,” Doughty added. “It’s a tough arena to play in. They’re so good at home. We need to try to win this first game. It’s very important.”
The bottom line for the Kings, as usual, is to look inward.
“It’s more about this group of guys and the trust we have in each other,” said Brown. “If you look at a lot of the teams that have made it, and are very successful in the playoffs over the last four or five years, they have a core group of players who have gone through climbing the hill, so to speak, together. That goes [a longer way] than anything else—that trust you build up for those situations.”
“It’s a lot easier when you that you have guys on each side of you who are all pulling the same way,” added Brown. “You don’t have to question anybody in this room. Everyone has a job, everyone knows their job, and everyone accepts their job.”
“I’ve said, multiple times, about this group we have, the inner arrogance, or the quiet confidence, whatever you want to call it, that’s in this dressing room—I look around and I trust that everyone’s going to do their job, and get it done,” said Kings right wing Justin Williams. “Nobody has to be great. It’s just [that] everyone has to be good.”
With Kopitar and Gaborik leading the way, an edge in goaltending with Jonathan Quick, and being healthier this time around…
Kings in seven.
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