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Blackhawks-Kings series as close as it gets

LOS ANGELES CA - FEBRUARY 03:  Goaltender Corey Crawford #50 Chicago Blackhawks makes save as teammate Nick Leddy #8

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 03: Goaltender Corey Crawford #50 of the Chicago Blackhawks makes a save as teammate Nick Leddy #8 and Trevor Lewis #22 of the Los Angeles Kings vie for the rebound in the second period during the NHL game at Staples Center on February 3, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)

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GAME 1

2 p.m. Sunday
at Hawks, Ch. 5

GAME 2

7 p.m. Wednesday
at Hawks, NBCSN

GAME 3

7 p.m. Saturday
at Kings, Ch. 5

GAME 4

8 p.m. May 26
at Kings, NBCSN

GAME 5 if necessary

7 p.m. May 28
at Hawks, NBCSN

GAME 6 if necessary

8 p.m. May 30
at Kings, NBCSN

GAME 7 if necessary

7 p.m. June 1
at Hawks, NBCSN

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Updated: June 23, 2014 12:56PM



There’s no blood feud between these teams, no long-simmering hatred. And there’s no plucky underdog here, no upstart team too young to know any better. No, the Western Conference final pits the last two Stanley Cup champions — the Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings — against each other.

Two playoff-tested, elite goalies in Corey Crawford and Jonathan Quick.

Two of the best two-way centers in the world in Jonathan Toews and Anze Kopitar.

Two Norris Trophy-caliber, puck-moving defensemen in Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty.

Two confident teams loaded with experience, savvy, talent and depth.

They were the fifth- and sixth-best teams in the Western Conference, according to the standings. Yet nobody is surprised to see them as the last two standing, fighting for a chance to play for the Stanley Cup.

Here are five X-factors that might decide what should be another rollicking, riveting series:

Quick question

Yes, Quick (left) is a mere 6-12-1 against the Hawks in his career. Yes, he had an .897 save percentage in the Western Conference finals last spring. Yes, he gave up 16 goals against the San Jose Sharks in the first three games of the playoffs this season. Doesn’t matter. He’s still a Stanley Cup champion and Conn Smythe winner. And when he’s hot, he’s nearly unbeatable.

Perhaps no goalie in the league covers the bottom of the net better than Quick. It’ll be up to the Hawks to shoot high and to create the kind of traffic in front of the net they weren’t able to create against the Minnesota Wild. And they probably will have to do it without injured Andrew Shaw for at least another game or two.

Of course, the guy the Hawks have in net has been pretty good in the playoffs, too. Crawford is tied with Quick for fourth all-time in postseason save percentage (.926) among goalies with at least 40 games played. Goals will be at a premium.

ANALYZE THIS

The Anaheim Ducks and Colorado Avalanche were the two best teams in the Western Conference standings. But the Kings and Hawks were the two best teams in the NHL, according to the advanced stats that measure puck possession, particularly in 5-on-5 play with the score close. Assuming the goalies cancel each other out, whichever team can come closest to matching its usual puck-possession level should come out on top.

They’re not terribly similar teams, though. The Hawks are built around speed and skill, loaded with talented wings. The Kings are the most physical team in the league, averaging nearly 32 hits, and are stacked up the middle, with Kopitar (19 points in 14 games), Jeff Carter and Mike Richards leading the way.

The Kings averaged omly 2.5 goals per game during the regular season, while the Hawks averaged a conference-best 3.3. Like the Wild did, the Kings will try to slow down the Hawks in the neutral zone and force them to play chip-and-chase in an effort to limit scoring chances. But while the Kings are defensive-minded, they’re not offensively inept. The addition of Marian Gaborik at the trade deadline has been a game-changer for the Kings: He has a league-high nine goals and six assists in 14 playoff games.

Health check

Last spring, the Hawks beat the Kings in five games. But the Kings were a team devastated by injuries, including a torn posterior cruciate ligament for Dustin Brown and a shoulder separation for Justin Williams (both played), after a bone-crunching first-round series against the St. Louis Blues.

This season, the Kings’ injury problems are on the back end. Robyn Regehr hasn’t played since Game 1 against the Ducks, and Willie Mitchell hasn’t played since Game 6 against the Sharks. Mitchell appears close to returning — and not a moment too soon for the Kings, who have struggled when their top pairing of Doughty and Jake Muzzin aren’t on the ice.

The Hawks came through their series against the Blues surprisingly well, and Shaw is expected back sometime during the series.

Oh, shoot

Marian Hossa (left) and Patrick Sharp have put more shots on goal than any other Hawks players but have only two goals each. Considering their regular-season shooting percentages were more than twice as high as their postseason percentages, a regression to the mean — in other words, a bunch of goals — could be inevitable.

It happened for Patrick Kane in the Western Conference finals last season. After scoring only twice in the Hawks’ first 15 playoff games, he had four goals in the last two games against the Kings, including a hat trick and the overtime winner in Game 5. Considering Kane and Toews have been finding the back of the net during these playoffs, if Sharp and Hossa start scoring, too, the Hawks will be tough to beat.

TREND-SPOTTING

There’s no streakier team in the league than the Kings. They have winning streaks of three, five, four, six, eight, six and six games this season. And they have losing streaks of five, five, four, three, three and three games. In the playoffs alone, they lost their first three, won their next six, lost their next three and have won two in a row. Before you figure that means an inevitable sweep, consider the Hawks have lost two, won six, lost two and won two in this postseason. Both teams can’t win the next four, so something has to give.

Also, the Kings are 6-0 this postseason in games in which they could have been eliminated. The Hawks are 12-2 in potential clinchers in the Toews/Kane era. It’s the killers against the unkillable.

Oh, and the Hawks would be wise to avoid a Game 7. Sure, they’d have home-ice advantage, but you don’t want to face the Kings in a Game 7. They already have won two this postseason (both on the road).

In fact, Richards, Gaborik and Williams are 6-0 in Game 7s, with Williams posting six goals in those six games. The six players who scored Friday against the Ducks are a combined 27-0 in Game 7s.

Prediction

It’s two outstanding teams with championship experience, a true tossup. Tossups tend to go seven games, and you don’t pick against the Kings in Game 7. Kings in 7.



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