It may not have been getting the attention it deserves, but the Western Conference final is shaping up to be a terrific series, one that will likely produce the next Stanley Cup champion. The Kings and Blackhawks are providing some compelling reasons for everyone to tune in.
For those of you completely consumed with the Dustin Tokarski watch or the what-the-hell-was-Thomas-Vanek-doing-on-the-fourth-line-in-practice-today controversy, we at thn.com have a public service announcement for you. There is another ice hockey competition going on. You may have heard of it. It’s the Western Conference final and it pits the Blackhawks of Chicago against the Kings of Los Angeles.
And it’s also the de facto Stanley Cup final.
To say that the winner of the Blackhawks-Kings series will ultimately win the Cup is presumptuous, especially when the New York Rangers are involved, but even the most ardent fans of both the Rangers and Montreal Canadiens would have to admit that whoever wins the Western Conference final goes into the Stanley Cup final as the prohibitive favorite.
The Kings and Blackhawks represent the league’s most recent two Cup winners and play in a far superior conference. Their path through the playoffs has been one littered with deadly opponents. The Blackhawks, you may recall, had to overcome an 0-2 deficit against a powerful St. Louis Blues team just to get out of the first round. And the Kings, well the Kings comeback from 0-3 against the San Jose Sharks was historical. So far, the Rangers have made it through the worst division in the NHL and the Canadiens defeated a Tampa team that was without its No. 1 goalie and a Boston team that lost its identity somewhere along the way.
And really, as plucky and inspiring as both the Canadiens and Rangers have been this season, does anyone really expect either one of them to defeat the western representative in the Cup final? The thing with these kinds of teams is that they can win to a point, but at some juncture in the proceedings, reality catches up with them. That’s why, with very rare exceptions, the team that goes into the final as the prohibitive favorite to win almost always does.
Two years ago, the Kings finished eighth in the west and seven points in arrears of the New Jersey Devils and beat them in the final. Was that a mismatch? Hardly, particularly with the way the Kings cruised to the final that year. In 2011 (Boston) and 2009 (Pittsburgh), the team with decidedly fewer points beat the superior team in the final, but neither of those could be classified as a shocking upset. In fact, the last time that happened – when a team that seemingly had no business playing its opponent and won - was probably during the 1995 lockout shortened season when the Devils took out the Detroit Red Wings in four straight.
The Rangers, who take a 2-0 series lead onto home ice Thursday night, look poised to go to the final for the first time since they won the Cup in 1994. And Henrik Lundqvist has been the great equalizer for them, the kind of player who can make the difference in a seven-game series against any opponent. But there is little doubt the Rangers would be significant underdogs against either the Kings or Blackhawks.
So why is it that so few people are talking about the Kings-Blackhawks? Eastern bias perhaps. But if you haven’t focused on them, here’s a little of what you’re missing:
• The mastery of Blackhawks on home ice: Should the Blackhawks win Wednesday night in Game 2, they will have gone 8-0 at the United Center during these playoffs. And with home-ice advantage for both the conference final and Cup final if they get there, that is not good news for their opponents.
• The emergence of Brent Seabrook: Well, those who have watched Seabrook closely over the years know he’s far more than Duncan Keith’s understudy. His play at both ends of the ice through the playoffs has been spectacular.
• The matchups: The head-to-head battle between the Anze Kopitar line of the Kings and the Jonathan Toews line with the Blackhawks was an interesting subplot in Game 1 and should continue to provide some great hockey through the series, particularly since Kings coach Darryl Sutter isn’t trying to get Kopitar’s line away from it.
“It’s not that big a deal to us,” Sutter told reporters after the morning skate Wednesday. “I mean, Kopy (Kopitar) and Gabby (Marian Gaborik) and Browny (Dustin Brown), that’s a good matchup for us. I think everyone wants to see that. It’s a pretty even matchup, I think.”
• Just as important for the Blackhawks has been their ability to counter the Kopitar line with the defense pairing of Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya. It gives the Blackhawks a great shutdown pair while allowing them to use Seabrook and Keith in more offensive situations.
• Lundqvist is not the only goalie creating magic in these playoffs. Corey Crawford has matched Lundqvist save-for-save. They are separated by one point in save percentage (Lundqvist at .934 and Crawford at .933) and are almost identical in goals-against average. Crawford had his doubters even as he was winning the Stanley Cup last season, but this spring he is gaining a legion of believers.