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The NHL Playoff Primer: Western Conference Finals

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Kings goalie Jonathan Quick doesn't care if cameras are always looking over his shoulder (Reuters).

Kings goalie Jonathan Quick doesn’t care if cameras are always looking over his shoulder (Reuters).

The seemingly random aspects of hockey – the ability for a goaltender to play out of his mind, a team going all out to shut down an opposing star, the chance that a favorite might have some injuries taking their toll – make the NHL playoffs a guessing game to even the most highly trained mind (leaving someone like me absolutely no chance). How tough is it? There were eight teams seeded sixth or lower to make the conference finals in the seven playoffs after the 2005 lockout.

Perhaps it’s a bit ironic, then, that in this shortest of short seasons, where a team could easily prove to have David Blained its way through 48 games without being exposed as a fraud, that the four best teams are in the conference finals. Chicago and Pittsburgh were clearly the top two in the regular season. Boston finished fourth in the East – not second, ahead of Montreal – due partially to a jam-packed late-season schedule that was altered after the Marathon bombings. And Los Angeles, after popping two Stanley Cup hangover ibuprofens and chugging some Gatorade, was the West’s second-best team over the final two months.

It’s a dream final four in nearly every way possible for the league. You may have heard that the last four Stanley Cup champs are the four teams remaining. Every potential matchup, save for maybe Boston-Los Angeles, is extraordinarily enticing. Penguins-Blackhawks? Two best teams, high-scoring, star power. Bruins-Blackhawks? Original Six glory; fast-skating, skilled Chicago against bruising Boston. Pens-Kings? Crosby and Malkin against a tenacious defense and the seemingly impenetrable Jonathan Quick.

And at least if we’re left with Boston-LA, Gary Bettman can pretend he’s promoting Celtics-Lakers to the unsuspecting novice sports fan. “Garnett! Kobe! It’s the Stanley Cup finals on NBC Sports Network!”

Sadly, Bettman’s head is so far up his own ass he might actually believe it.

Would you let this man run your multimillion dollar enterprise? Or be within 500 feet of your children? (Getty Images)

Would you let this man run your multimillion dollar enterprise? Or be within 500 feet of your children? (Getty Images)

We’ll tackle what should be an excellent series between the Kings and Blackhawks in a moment, but first let’s sneak in just one more reminder of how this league succeeds in spite of itself. You may have noticed the LA-Chicago series is starting hours prior to Boston-Pittsburgh despite the latter two teams having had a combined THIRTEEN days off since last playing. You also may have noticed that there was no, and I mean NO, logical reason that Bruins-Pens could not have started Thursday, a day after a thrilling Game 7 between the Blackhawks and Red Wings and two after the winner-take-all-finale between the Sharks and Kings. That way, Game 2 in the Steel City still could have been played on Saturday, satisfying NBC and the league’s Canadian broadcast partners’ bloodlust for Hockey Night in Canada (in Pittsburgh).

What you may not have noticed is that, looking ahead, should both conference finals go the distance, those Game 7s would be played ON THE SAME NIGHT. This is a problem that’s somewhat unavoidable in the first round, with eight series being scheduled that all must conclude on or around the same date. It’s something I could even see being tough to tackle in Round 2, though it happened to work out in this case with Game 7s on back-to-back nights.

But in the conference finals? That’s nothing but shameful. The absolute APEX of this sport is a Game 7. Nothing in ANY sport compares to the intensity and edge-of-your-seat uncertainty of a Game 7 in the NHL. Yet here we are, faced with the possibility that these four teams, the last four to grab that 35-pound silver chalice from Bettman’s weaselly clutches, will be playing do-or-die games on the same night to decide who gets a chance to get back to hockey’s grandest stage. One time zone apart.

No word yet on whether Gary is planning to hold two games in the Stanley Cup finals in one evening.

Jonathan Toews is struggling to score, but can always fall back on being Hugh Jackman's body double in the Wolverine series (Comcast SportsNet).

Jonathan Toews is struggling to score, but can always fall back on being Hugh Jackman’s body double in the Wolverine series (Comcast SportsNet).

1. Chicago vs. 5. Los Angeles

The Blackhawks will win if: Like madness, gravity and The Joker, all it took was … a little push. Chicago got what amounted to a massive shove from Detroit in the second round, but I’m fairly convinced that might have been the best thing to happen to the Blackhawks. This is a team that did essentially nothing wrong for three months, seemed to be at half-speed in its first-round series against overmatched Minnesota and then found itself on the brink of elimination against its most bitter rival faster than Patrick Kane can shotgun an Old Style. As a Chicago resident, trust me when I say this city was resigned to an early exit when the Blackhawks went down 3-1 after managing to get only one puck past Detroit’s Jimmy Howard in Games 2 through 4.

But like a group that went half a season without a regulation loss, Joel Quenneville’s boys persevered. They got away with not playing their best against Detroit, and while that won’t be the case against the Kings, we’ve yet to see the next level that this Blackhawks team has somewhere underneath those Indian head sweaters. Unless he’s hurt, Jonathan Toews is not going to again play like he did against the Red Wings, where he has as many penalties in a six-minute stretch of Game 4 as he had points in the series. Patrick Kane, who scored roughly every six times he put a shot on net during the regular season, is bound to see his luck turn after scoring only twice on the 43 shots he’s attempted in the postseason. You win in the playoffs by getting big production from your stars. Chicago’s two biggest guns haven’t played at nearly the level they’re capable of, and it still finds itself in the conference finals.

That’s a credit, of course, to the Blackhawks’ depth at forward. They don’t have another stud center beyond Toews, but Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Michal Handzus, Brandon Saad and the rather effective Bryan Bickell and Andrew Shaw are all good enough that Quenneville can have no qualms about tinkering with his forward lines until he finds some combinations that click. Which he has.

Bryan Bickell, Blackhawks tough guy and dental hygienist's dream.

Bryan Bickell, Blackhawks tough guy and dental hygienist’s dream.

The Blackhawks’ power play was not good during the regular season and was especially disastrous over the last month, but they scored three massive man-advantage goals in Games 5 and 6 against Detroit to help turn the tide. And while all you’ll hear heading into this series is about how impenetrable Quick is, he gave up four power-play goals over the last five games against San Jose. With that being said…

Los Angeles will win if: Quick, can you name the only goaltender in postseason history to go 33 games without allowing more than three goals? The answer is in the asking, though no matter how brilliantly the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner plays, it’s hard to imagine Chicago not sneaking four pucks past him at some juncture in this series.

That’s not the point, though. Quick can have a bad game and Los Angeles can still win the series, but in order for Chicago to advance he can’t have two or three great games. Which is something he’s done in basically six straight playoff series. For LA to get through this series, however, he’ll have to steal a game at the United Center. Frankly, that’s going to be a tall order.

Since April 1, the Kings have played 12 games away from Staples Center, winning once. Their goal totals in those games: 1, 3, 1, 2, 1, 1, 1, 1, 3, 1, 1, 1. That’s a whopping 17 goals, one for approximately every 21 shots Los Angeles puts on net. That’s obviously a problem on the surface, but here’s the bigger issue. No team in these playoffs attempts fewer shots than the Kings. They take a crack at the net 24.8 times per game, five fewer than they averaged during the regular season. While that’s a relatively small sample size that came against two tight-checking, space-eating teams in St. Louis and San Jose, it’s also a massive concern for a team that already has enough trouble scoring.

Los Angeles’ scoring issues aren’t due to a lack of talent, as Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter, Anze Kopitar, Justin Williams and Mike Richards are more than capable of lighting the lamp rather often, but if you want an X-factor for the Kings in this series it might be Jarret Stoll. Stoll suffered a concussion on a hit from Raffi Torres – a name already infamous to Blackhawks fans – in Game 1 against San Jose, but seems to be progressing and could play in Saturday’s opener. Stoll only had seven goals and 11 assists in the regular season and one assist in his seven playoff games, but he’s an outstanding penalty killer who’s good on faceoffs. For a team that likes to get a lead and choke the life out of its opponent, having Stoll out there would be a very good thing.

If Stoll would rather hang out with girlfriend Erin Andrews in the press box than chase Kane and Toews and risk life and limb diving in front of vulcanized rubber flying at him at 90 mph, though, can you blame him?

Outkicking his coverage doesn't really apply, so can we say Jarret Stoll iced the puck? (Fox Sports).

Outkicking his coverage isn’t really the right phrase, but can we say Jarret Stoll iced the puck? (Fox Sports).

It’s very possible this series could be decided by which goaltender is the most dominant, and Quick’s .948 save percentage and dynamite glove hand would certainly seem to give him the edge of Corey Crawford, who has a questionable glove and has allowed a few iffy goals in the past month. But I think it’s just as likely, if not more so, that the Kings’ road woes really catch up to them and Chicago’s offensive depth is just a little too much for a talented group of LA defenders and Quick to contain. The Kings are the most physical team the Blackhawks have seen by far, but if they don’t let LA goad them into taking foolish penalties, they should be OK.

If the Kings are going to win this series, it’s probably going to be in six games. After much back-and-forth, I’ll give them Game 6 – but only because they were down 3-2 to begin with.

The pick: Blackhawks in 7

Fun fact: Dating back to last season’s playoffs, the Kings are 39-5-2 when they score first.

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Coming tomorrow: After vacationing on the Maldive Islands together during their week off in the NHL’s first-ever Big Brother-style reality show, the Bruins and Penguins find out this house isn’t big enough for both of them! Hilarity ensues, and an NHL playoff series begins – much to the dismay of Zdeno Chara and Sidney Crosby, who were about to begin filming the most unlikely buddy cop movie yet.

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