CHICAGO -- The Los Angles Kings were a popular upset pick by many entering the Western Conference finals. And why not, after the defending Stanley Cup champions showed their resilience in series wins over St. Louis and San Jose?
Having spent time with the Kings over the past month, however, I felt entering this series that the Kings were a beat-up squad almost gasping for air after surviving seven games against the Sharks. I have once again been impressed with how they grind out wins, but I picked the Blackhawks in large part because of the fatigue Los Angeles was feeling.
That seems to be bearing out now, and is a good place to start as we examine why the Hawks have a 3-1 series lead over the Kings and the inside track to a berth in the Stanley Cup finals.
The Kings' health issues
If and when the Kings are eliminated, finally becoming privy to the list of ailments and injuries the defending Cup champs are playing with should be quite compelling. There's no question Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown are gutting it out through injuries, because neither has the pace to his game we're used to seeing. These guys were legitimate Conn Smythe Trophy candidates a year ago, but that level of play just isn't there this spring.
Coach Darryl Sutter's decision to move Kopitar to the third line before Game 3 is a pretty strong indication not all is right with Kopitar. Justin Williams and other Kings are also playing through pain, and even for those who aren't somewhat injured, just the drain of having played the most games in the playoffs, plus the most physical series in years versus St. Louis, has taken its toll.
Los Angeles looked tired near the end of Game 4, like a car running on fumes, and launched just two shots on goal against the Hawks in the third period. Not sure the long flight back to Chicago is going to help restore those legs, either.
Richards' absence hurts
Let's not sugarcoat it: The loss of star center Mike Richards to a concussion in Game 1 was a huge blow to a team that couldn't afford to lose any key pieces. Richards does it all for the Kings, from special teams, faceoffs, late-game shifts and shutdown roles, to being the offensive leader and emotional barometer of the team. His absence is felt in so many ways.
Crawford vs. Quick
The goalie matchup looked lopsided entering this series given how sensational the Kings' Jonathan Quick looked in the first two rounds. Corey Crawford had been good for the Hawks, but the greatness Quick displayed versus the Blues and Sharks gave the Kings an obvious and important edge. Or so it seemed.
Four games into the series Crawford has held his own and then some, making the saves he had to while closing the door when Chicago has held third-period leads. He's allowed only seven goals in four games. What else can you ask of him?
Nobody is asking Crawford to steal a game in this series. The Hawks just need him to not lose one. And he hasn't, with a Game 3 loss clearly not falling on him. He's been steady and confident in the face of a goalie matchup that could intimidate many other netminders.
Quick, meanwhile, has come down to earth a little in this series, pulled in Game 2 and victimized in Game 4 by a knuckling wrist shot by Bryan Bickell that he should have had, whether the puck hit defenseman Robyn Regehr or not. Just that very small crack in Quick's armor is enough for the Blackhawks' all-world offensive talent to take advantage, and they have so far.
The Kings' stagnant offense
In Quick's defense, it would be nice if his team could score some goals to support him. Los Angeles has averaged two goals per game in the playoffs, an offensive output that makes it difficult to repeat as champs. Kopitar and Brown were 20-point men last spring. They're nowhere near that this year; as we stated above it's believed both are playing through injuries.
But where is Dwight King this spring? He was a revelation a year ago in the playoffs but hasn't done much this year. The power play hasn't delivered enough, either. The Kings have won their share of 2-1 games, but it's hard to go to that well every night and beat a quality team like the Blackhawks.
Turnovers are killers
The Kings have turned the puck over way too often in the neutral zone in three of the four games, uncharacteristic of the way L.A. usually plays when it's on top if its game. But that's also a result of Chicago's superior speed forcing some of those mistakes. Two of the Blackhawks' three goals Thursday night, in the critical game of the series, were off Kings mistakes or turnovers. That has absolutely burned the Kings in this series.
The Blackhawks' depth
Chicago has gotten contributions from all kinds of players in the series. Just look at the way the Hawks' blue-line corps all stepped up their game in the absence of Duncan Keith in Game 4, particularly Niklas Hjalmarsson and Michal Rozsival.
Up front, fourth-line wingers Michael Frolik and Marcus Kruger have continue to spearhead Chicago's ridiculous penalty-killing prowess, while the third line of Andrew Shaw, Brandon Saad and Viktor Stalberg has provided quality shift after quality shift.
When the supporting cast is giving you those kinds of minutes behind the big stars on the team, it's tough for a depleted Kings squad to match up.
The power of Bickell
As the risk of beating the storyline to death, you can't write this piece without once again underlining Bryan Bickell's formidable presence. Now up to eight playoff goals, the Hawks' emerging power forward has been impossible for the Kings to handle in their own zone, and Bickell's knack for timely goals has fueled the Blackhawks in this series.
Is the end near?
If there's any team that can come back from a 3-1 deficit, it's the Kings, who have shown their character time and again this spring when pushed in a corner by St. Louis and San Jose.
But for the reasons listed above, and the sense that the Blackhawks are not going to take their foot off the pedal Saturday night, all signs point to this series ending shortly. It may not be Saturday, but it's hard to believe there's any way Chicago won't win one of the three possible remaining games.
And if it does end for L.A., there's no shame in it whatsoever for the Kings, who have valiantly and proudly defended their title with a trip to the conference finals, battling through injuries and showing their character in winning big games when it mattered.
But the Hawks are a step above right now, firing on all cylinders. Sometimes, there's just no answer for that no matter how much you want it.