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Blackhawks show penchant for keeping top lines in check


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Hjalmarsson on 'scary' hit to throat

Updated: June 23, 2014 2:27PM

You can’t blame Los Angeles Kings coach Darryl Sutter for thinking it’s only a matter of time before his prolific line of Anze ­Kopitar, Marian Gaborik and Dustin Brown finds its scoring groove against the Blackhawks.

At least, that’s what it sounded like he was thinking when he was asked about the challenge of ­getting his top line going after it was shut out in the Hawks’ 3-1 ­victory against the Kings in Game 1 of the Western Conference final.

“I can only base it on [Sunday’s] game — we had a lot of good ­opportunities,” he said. “You have to give [Corey] Crawford a lot of credit.”

It could turn out that Game 1 was an anomaly for the Kopitar-Gaborik-Brown line. With two days to catch their breath after jumping into the conference final against the rested Blackhawks less than two days after a seven-game ­series against the Anaheim Ducks, the Kings could give the Hawks a fresher dose of the line that rallied them past the Sharks and Ducks.

Kopitar came into the series with a playoff-best 19 points in 14 games (five goals, 14 assists). Gaborik came in with a league-best nine goals and was right behind Kopitar with 15 points. With Brown’s two goals and four assists, the Kings’ top line had amassed a daunting total of 40 points (16 goals, 24 assists).

On the other hand, the Game 1 shutout could be an ominous sign that the Kings will have to look elsewhere to get enough scoring punch to oust the defending Cup champions. The Blackhawks, with a number of two-way players led by top-liners Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa, have a history of forcing an opponent to be more balanced than it cares to be by ­containing the top line.

It happened against the Blues, whether it was T.J. Oshie (two goals, no assists) and Alex Steen (one goal, two assists) with Steve Ott (two assists) or David Backes (one assist).

The Minnesota Wild’s top line of Mikko Koivu, Charlie Coyle and Matt Moulson/Nino Neiderreiter scored one goal against the Hawks. Koivu had one assist. Coyle had two assists. Star forward Zach Parise, who had 10 points in the Wild’s first-round upset of the Avalanche, had a quiet four points, with one goal, against the Hawks.

With Crawford getting some well-deserved league-wide recognition, the one thing the Hawks don’t get enough credit for is a defense that can be elite where it has to be, when it has to be. In last year’s Cup Final, the Bruins’ David Krejci (nine goals) and Nathan Horton (seven goals) came in with a combined 16 postseason goals. They scored none against the Hawks.

While the Kopitar line will be looking to break out in Game 2, the Hawks will be looking to tighten the noose even more.

“We let them have too many good chances,” defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said. “Crow made a couple of big saves. We can do a better job [of] not giving them as many scoring chances next game.”

That’s a sign of respect, actually. The Hawks respond to perceived threats. The Hawks know that no matter what happened in Game, 1, their job against Kopitar, Gaborik and Brown has just begun.

“They’re a really good line,” Hjalmarsson said. “Kopitar is a great two-way player. He has a great, great stick and Gaborik, his speed is always dangerous. Brown flying around hitting people, good in front of the net. It’s going to be a great challenge to try to shut them down.”


Twitter: @MarkPotash

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