The champs of 2012 and the favorite of 2013 were each pushed to the brink in the NHL’s Western Conference semi-finals, but in the end both the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks survived, each winning 2-1 battles in Game 7. We’ll close out our coverage of the second round with a look at how LA & Chicago did it.
KINGMAKERS IN LOS ANGELES
Justin Williams was the hero for Los Angeles, scoring both his teams’ goals in a three-minute span early in the second period. It was the only burst of offensive activity the Kings had all night. They only took 18 shots, 11 of them in the second period. You can’t fault the defensive effort of San Jose, and it’s not as though goalie Antti Niemi had a bad game. But Niemi did have a bad three minutes and the NHL playoffs is ruthlessly unforgiving to goalies, especially in defensive grind like this entire series was.
San Jose got 26 shots, but of their best offensive players, only Logan Couture really got any chances at the net. Defenseman Dan Boyle scored the Sharks one goal, part of a 14-shot onslaught the desperate team unleashed in the third period. But even scoring that goal underscored San Jose’s problems—they were relying too much on people like Boyle to score, and not enough on players like Patrick Marleau.
In the end, Los Angeles’ strength in this series was goaltender Jonathan Quick, while San Jose had better depth of offensive talent. The series turned into a defensive battle every game, meaning the Kings won the first key battle, which was to dictate the terms on which the series would be fought. And that gave them just enough of an edge to survive.
Chicago had to go to overtime, but they finally got rid of Detroit on a goal by defenseman Brent Seabrook early in OT. Patrick Sharp scored the game’s first goal in the second period, on an assist from Marian Hossa. Though Hossa never got untracked scoring-wise, or even shooting, he did deliver three assists over the final two games. It’s said that great players find ways to contribute, and while it might be a stretch to call Hossa great player, he’s certainly a good one and he did find a way to help his team.
Detroit was outshot 35-27. When you have inferior offensive talent and get outshot, that’s not exactly a formula for a win. Furthermore, while Henrik Zetterberg was a key part of the attack and scored Detroit’s one goal early in the third period, the Red Wings never got Pavel Datsyuk involved. To build off our previous point, when you only have a couple good offensive threats, don’t get a lot of shots and one of those threats is only a minimal part of the shots you don’t get, it can’t be a surprise when you don’t win.
Defensively, the Red Wings might not have been able to contain the number of shots Chicago got, but Detroit did a good job at least making sure second-tier Blackhawk players had to take a lot of the shots. While Patrick Kane got four cracks at the net, the other key players in Chicago’s deep attack were forced to give up the puck. It made Jimmy Howard’s job at least manageable in net. Howard played a good game—saving 33 of 35 shots is an excellent performance, but if you’re going to pull an upset like this in the NHL playoffs, the goalie has to get to some level beyond excellent and Howard couldn’t quite pull it off.
The conference finals have come together nicely for NBC. They have two of the nation’s three biggest markets in the Los Angeles-Chicago battle in the West. They have the country’s fourth-largest market in Boston, and one that’s hockey-crazy throughout the region. And Pittsburgh merely has the sport’s best player in Sidney Crosby.
A cynic might say that Gary Bettman learned his lessons well when he worked in the NBA offices under David Stern. Although the NHL doesn’t have the same track record of things always working out this well that the NBA does, so hockey can get the benefit of the doubt on any conspiracy theories.
Conference final action will begin on Saturday with a doubleheader. It starts with Los Angeles-Chicago at 5 PM ET on NBC Sports Network, and then at 8 PM ET, shift over to Boston-Pittsburgh on the parent NBC network. TheSportsNotebook will preview both series in NHL analysis that will post on Friday.