Considering their 21-0-3 start to the season and the general ease with which they navigated the bulk of the 2013 schedule, the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks have been somewhat disappointing this postseason.
But, at this time of the year, when survive and advance becomes a mantra, the Blackhawks are in sync with their own expectations. So, does it matter if Chicago has progressed to this stage of the postseason without racking up style points? It certainly won't if the club adds another Stanley Cup title to the trophy case.
Chicago beat Minnesota in five games to open this postseason, but the lofty expectations that come along with a Presidents' Trophy and a 36-7-5 record during the regular season even made that seem like a letdown. The fact that the Blackhawks needed seven games to down the seventh-seeded Detroit Red Wings is also another perceived knock against Joel Quenneville's team, even if Chicago came back from down 3-1 to win the series.
There's no question the road to the Western Conference finals, where Chicago hasn't been since winning a Stanley Cup in 2010, has been rockier than expected. But if the old axiom that says what doesn't kill you makes you stronger is true, the Blackhawks are a team to be feared.
Barring maybe the Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago has the deepest roster in the NHL and the lineup includes plenty of familiar faces from the Blackhawks' Stanley Cup championship team of three years ago. Forwards Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Dave Bolland and defensemen Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson all helped Chicago lift the Cup in 2010 and Quenneville has leaned heavily on that postseason experience this spring.
Take for example, the way Game 7 ended. The Blackhawks believed they scored the go-ahead goal with 1:49 left in regulation only to see coincidental roughing minors, which occurred well behind the play, negate a Hjalmarsson goal.
As the decisive game went into overtime thanks to the questionable call, many teams would've let negativity take over and possibly lose focus of the task at hand. Instead, the Blackhawks kept the pressure on until Seabrook scored early in the extra session to punch the club's ticket to the next round.
"We did have some learning curve in this round," Seabrook said. "Detroit played a great series. We really had to find ourselves again after the fourth game, being down 3-1, and I thought the boys responded well."
As Chicago's captain, Toews is the club's primarily leader and he showed why late in the second round series. After taking three costly penalties in the second period of a Game 4 loss, the 2010 Conn Smythe winner came back with a goal and two assists over the final three games to help his team overcome the 3-1 deficit.
Toews only has one goal and five assists in 12 games this postseason, but the loaded Blackhawks have had other people ready to pick up the slack. All told, Chicago has eight players with two or more goals in this postseason and Sharp is leading the way with seven markers, tying him for the league lead in the playoffs with Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Pascal Dupuis.
Sharp and Hossa, who has five goals, are tied for the team lead with 11 points. Bryan Bickell, a big guy with soft hands around the net, also has five goals in this postseason.
In addition to Toews, the Blackhawks probably would like to get more production from Kane. The smooth skating winger has amassed seven assists, but his goal output of two leaves something to be desired.
Chicago's offense is averaging a solid 2.75 goals per game in the postseason, but the club is really winning with defense and goaltending. In fact, with an average of 1.83 goals surrendered per game, only the Kings have been stingier during the 2013 playoffs.
Keith, a former Norris Trophy winner, is the centerpiece of Chicago's blue line and has put together a fine postseason. Averaging a team-high 24 minutes and 36 seconds of ice time per game, Keith has recorded a goal and a club-best eight assists during the playoffs.
The vastly underrated Hjalmarsson has chipped in three assists this spring, while Johnny Oduya has registered two goals and an assist. Along with Keith, Hjalmarsson, Oduya and Seabrook make up the backbone of Chicago's defense and Quenneville is using each player for an average of 20-plus minutes per game.
Michal Rozsival and Nick Leddy don't see quite as many minutes but they've played in every game this postseason, giving Chicago a consistent six-man defensive rotation.
Thanks to the steady group of D-men in front of him, Chicago goaltender Corey Crawford has seen fewer shots on average this postseason than any other starting goaltender in the final round. Crawford has faced an average of 28.1 shots per game and that has helped him post strong numbers this spring in both goals against average (1.70) and save percentage (.938).
The 28-year-old Crawford's postseason play has seen a marked improvement from 2012, when he posted a GAA of 2.58 and an .893 save percentage as Chicago lost in six games to Phoenix during the opening round.
Crawford also has done his part in making Chicago nearly perfect on the penalty kill this spring. The Blackhawks have killed off an amazing 40-of-41 of the opposition's power-play chances so far and even managed to record a short-handed goal.
The dominant PK has helped compensate for a lackluster power play that has scored six times on 37 chances (16.2 percent) with the man advantage.
LOS ANGELES KINGS (5th seed, West)
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 27-16-5
2013 PLAYOFFS: Defeated St. Louis 4-2 in conference quarterfinals, defeated San Jose 4-3 in conference semifinals
The Los Angeles Kings shocked many folks on their way to the franchise's first Stanley Cup title last spring, but this year's deep playoff run shows their was more to the 2012 champions than the element of surprise.
The Kings were an eighth seed in 2012, but went 16-4 in the playoffs to secure a Stanley Cup title. With an 8-5 mark so far in this postseason it's obvious the fifth-seeded Kings are having a rougher go of it in 2013, but few people are counting out L.A., which is trying to become the first team to win consecutive Cup titles since Detroit in 1997 and '98.
Head coach Darryl Sutter has pretty much an identical team from his title run of a year ago and his club's best player is still the guy between the pipes.
Jonathan Quick won the Conn Smythe Trophy last spring after posting a 1.41 goals against average, .946 save percentage and three shutouts in 20 games. He's currently working on a carbon copy of that performance in 2013, as the 27-year-old American has registered a 1.50 GAA and a .948 save percentage to go along with three more playoff shutouts.
Quick also received the first Game 7 test of his career in the second round and passed it with flying colors, stopping 25-of-26 shots to help L.A. down the San Jose Sharks, 2-1, in the decisive game of the conference semifinals.
"You just tell him good job, and hopefully he just stays in the zone," Kings defenseman Matt Greene said of Quick. "That's the way he's been going, and you just want him to keep going that way."
The Kings boast a balanced scoring attack thanks to a nice mix of players up front and a couple of talented blueliners who are adept at joining the rush. L.A. has eight players with two or more goals in this postseason and that list includes defensemen Slava Voynov and Drew Doughty, who have posted four and two tallies, respectively.
Winger Jeff Carter is pacing the Kings with five goals in these playoffs and centerman Mike Richards, Carter's former teammate in Philadelphia, is leading the club with 10 points on two goals and eight assists. Another former Flyer, Justin Williams, has four goals, including both markers in the Game 7 win over the Sharks.
Anze Kopitar is the best two-way player for the Kings, but he's struggled getting his offensive game going at times in this postseason. All told, he's posted two goals and five assists in these playoffs after tying Dustin Brown for the team lead with 20 points during last spring's championship run.
Whether he's scoring or not, Kopitar figures to play an important defensive role in this series as he expects to be matched up regularly with Toews.
"It's not going to be any different" Kopitar said of the challenge. "I've lined up against some pretty good players thus far, and it's not going to be anything different."
Brown, the team captain, also has had trouble keeping up with his scoring pace from the 2012 postseason, as he has three goals and one assist in 13 games this spring compared to eight goals and 12 assists in 20 games last season.
It should come as no surprise that Doughty is leading the Kings in ice time. The team's best overall defensemen has logged nearly 28 minutes (27:57) of action per game.
Sutter also is leaning heavily on Voynov, Robyn Regehr and Rob Scuderi for minutes, as all three D-men are averaging over 20 minutes of ice time per game.
Regehr, who also played under Sutter in Calgary, signed a two-year contract extension with the Kings on Thursday. The club locked up the stay-at-home defenseman before he was scheduled to hit free agency on July 6.
Greene and rookie Jake Muzzin round out a defensive unit that has helped Quick hold the opposition to just 1.54 goals per game in this postseason. L.A. needs to be that stingy considering it's averaging only two goals per game this spring.
The Kings have put up solid special teams' numbers in these playoffs. L.A. is ranked fifth in penalty killing, stopping 86 percent (37-of-43) of the opposition's chances with the man advantage. The Kings also are clicking at the rate of 20 percent on the power play, scoring seven goals on 32 opportunities.
When the playoffs began most people believed the Blackhawks were the team to beat in the West, but the Kings are out to prove that title still belongs to them.
Although the Kings and Blackhawks are ranked No. 1 and 2, respectively, in team defense during this postseason, the season series between the two teams told a different story. Chicago won two of the three encounters in 2013, as the clubs combined for a sizeable 21 goals during the season series.
As a result of their high-scoring affairs, Crawford posted a lofty 3.52 GAA in two outings against the Kings this year, while Quick had a 4.04 GAA while starting all three games.
Toews wreaked havoc on L.A. in 2013 with three goals and three assists, while teammate Michael Frolik added three markers and two assists. Richards led the Kings with two goals against Chicago, while Kopitar and Doughty tied for the team lead with three points apiece.
This is only the second playoff encounter between the clubs and the first since the 1974 quarterfinals, when Chicago beat L.A. in five games.
Although the teams played fast and loose in the regular-season series, expect things to tighten up a bit in this playoff showdown. L.A. has the edge in net with Quick, but Chicago has the deeper overall roster and that could be the difference in what should be a fight to the finish.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Blackhawks in 7