By Mary Walsh
As the NHL Scouting Combine is under way, and draft rankings and reviews are cropping up all over Twitter and hockey sites, it is hard to focus entirely on playoff games that don’t involve the local team. Still, the Los Angeles Kings and the Chicago Blackhawks have done their darndest to keep us entertained with a pretty good Western Conference Final.
It has already been called one of the best series, certainly in these playoffs, maybe one of the best ever. Los Angeles and Chicago are still slugging it out, so to speak, neither heavyweight willing to concede. That will end Sunday in Game Seven. What impresses most about these games is the speed that they are playing at. Even in double overtime, they seem to play faster instead of slowing down like any reasonable person would expect. But how are they playing, compared to how they played in the regular season?
The Kings, as several opposing coaches have observed now, are playing well above their regular season level. In the regular season, they were 26th in goals per game, with an average of 2.42. In these playoffs, they are first, averaging 3.4. Defensively there has been a predictable drop off. In the regular season they were first in goals against, averaging 2.05. They gave up the fewest goals at even strength, but their penalty kill was only 11th, with a success rate of 83.1%. In the playoffs they have now given up an average of 2.8 per game, putting them 8th among playoff teams. Their penalty kill is also weaker, ranked 9th among playoff teams at 82.7%. It is hardly surprising that their defensive numbers have taken a beating, since they were playing playoff teams in fairly long series. On top of that, to make such a jump offensively they have to take risks. Obviously, those risks have paid off so far. They are just one win away from a return to the Stanley Cup Final.
The Blackhawks, on the other hand, have not seen much of a change in their scoring or defensive numbers. In the regular season they averaged 3.18 goals per game, good for second in the league. Their power play had a success rate of 19.5%. In these playoffs, they have averaged 3.00 goals per game, with their power play chugging along at 19.2%. Defensively they have slipped only slightly, allowing an average of 2.78 goals per game, compared to their regular season average of 2.58. They have seen an uptick in their penalty kill, killing 84.1% in the playoffs, compared to 81.4% in the regular season. In general, despite the changed conditions that come with a playoff schedule, they have remained pretty consistent.
The Kings are described as a team that is built for the playoffs. Maybe that is a way of saying they don’t hit their stride until playoffs, but if the Blackhawks had made an offensive jump for the playoffs akin to the one the Kings made, they would probably not be playing a seventh game. Is Chicago tapped out? Did they burn all their reserves during the regular season compensating for injuries to key players? Were they ever a better team than the Kings? That they are meeting in the Conference Final for the second season in a row suggests there is not much to choose between them, outside the regular season. The Kings have won two games by more than two goals and the Blackhawks have won only once by more than a goal. That certainly weighs in the Kings’ favor, but a win is a win. You can’t read too much into how much the team won by. Heck, maybe the Blackhawks are due a a big lead.
It is hard to imagine the New York Rangers beating either of these teams, except that the Rangers seem to have finally found their depth. Additionally, the Kings and the Blackhawks are doing a good job of taking the edge off each other. Fatigue will be a slightly bigger issues for the Kings, as this is their third seven game series. Chicago hasn’t had a much quicker trip, with two six game series before this one. It still seems like a stretch that a team so reliant on their goaltender could beat teams who have come so far despite some erratic goaltending. Still, it might be an entertaining Final, which is good since it will probably attract a lot of viewers. Broadway versus Hollywood has obvious appeal but Chicago can bring a sizeable audience as well. The NHL must be humming a gleeful tune.