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Blackhawks Tue May 20 2014
After the Hawks disposed of the Kings in five close games during last year's Western Conference final, skeptics began to ask if undisclosed injuries to Anze Kopitar and others played a role. A deep run for a playoff team will produce any type of ache, pain or punctured lung, especially if said team's back is against the wall.
Going into the series, the then defending Stanley Cup champs were riding the hot stick and glove of Jonathan Quick, who ended his playoff run with the fourth best goals-against average of 1.86, a mere two one-hundredths behind the man who beat him, Corey Crawford.
What beat the Kings in five was a lack of scoring, exiting the playoffs with the eleventh-best goals-per-game average of only 2.06, compared to the Hawks' 2.78. And even though the Hawks took Game 1 at home on Sunday by the final of 3-1, it likely won't be as night and day getting through this year's rematch as last year's near sweep.
First and foremost, it's clear the Kings were spent after flying nearly cross-country to O'Hare hours after pummeling the Anaheim Ducks in Game 7 -- a series that proved to be grueling for both teams. It was the perfect scenario for the Hawks in that all they had to do was sit back and watch from the comfort of their own home to see who they'd face in Game 1.
So instead of having to pack up their bags for a flight of their own to Anaheim, they began to plan how to dismantle the Kings for the second year in a row by looking at what worked and what didn't from last year's Western Conference final series.
One item to note of this year's Kings squad is the improvement of goals-for per game. They're up a full goal per game, sitting at 3.07, which can be attributed to Kopitar (19 points) and Marian Gaborik (15 points), sitting at one and two respectively atop the leaders in this postseason.
Last season, Kopitar tallied a total of nine points after 18 games played, so it's safe to say he's hungry for another Stanley Cup and more than likely healed from whatever ailed him last year.
Speaking of injuries, the Kings are facing two key ones on its defense in Willie Mitchell and Robyn Regehr. In their place will be Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin, both big guys who can skate, but who will need to step it up against this quick of a team in the Hawks. With that said, the Hawks won't be facing nearly as suffocating a defense as they did against the Wild, and that was made apparent in Sunday's Game 1 winner.
The Hawks will need to continue to keep in mind the offensive speed of this Kings team, who mirror how the Hawks get up and down the ice. And even though the Hawks took Game 1 against a tired team, the three days' rest will surely re-energize Darryl Sutter's squad.
The Hawks should take this series in six to once again get back to the Stanley Cup final, a phrase not a lot of folks imagined they'd be saying after the first two games against the Blues -- self included. A different Kings team on the ice compared to last year? Yes, which should expose how brilliant the Hawks are at adjusting game by game. A different result in this year's series? Not likely.