Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews joined the Chicago Blackhawks as “franchise saviors” in 2007 and have evolved into the league’s most dynamic offensive duo, capturing two Stanley Cups along the way. Last year’s Cup run saw the Blackhawks beat the Los Angeles Kings in five games in the Western Conference Finals with Kane netting the series winner in Game 5 in the Windy City.
As the two teams prepare to face off in this year’s Conference Finals, the Kings will look to avoid repeating last year’s defeat by not allowing the Blackhawks to have an abundance of quality scoring chances. As great as Jonathan Quick is, relying on him for a Herculean effort every single night against a team like Chicago will result in a very quick exit. In order for the Kings to limit the Blackhawks’ scoring chances, two players will be called upon who don’t exactly fit the mold of conventional “defensive stoppers”.
This year has seen Anze Kopitar nominated for the Selke Trophy for league’s best defensive forward and a major improvement in Drew Doughty’s defensive play. In order for the Kings to win the series both players will need to take on roles that are in many ways foreign to the two offensive dynamos.
Kopitar has been other worldly this postseason, recording points in 13 of the Kings’ 14 games and emerging as an early Conn Smyth candidate. While the Kings would never ask their star center to stop producing, they will need his defensive prowess matched up against Chicago’s elite forwards throughout the series. While fellow centers Mike Richards and Jarrett Stoll will also be going up against the Hawks’ dynamic duo, the onus of shutting them down will fall mostly on the shoulders of Kopitar.
Doughty’s defensive ability has long been under-appreciated, but the Kings will surely appreciate everything No. 8 in black gives them during the series. While the whole world saw just how good Doughty can be offensively at the Olympics, it is his all-around play that makes him one of the game’s elite defensemen.
Given the injuries/ineffectiveness of “defensive defensemen” Robyn Regehr, Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene, the onus will be on Doughty to shoulder a bigger load defensively than he may have assumed in the past. Against Chicago he will need to keep his composure while also delivering the type of game-changing hits we all saw during the Kings’ series win against the Anaheim Ducks. His improving physical play coupled with his high hockey IQ and world class skating ability will be crucial to making life miserable for Chicago’s elite forwards.
Too often teams try to use brute force on the likes of Toews and Kane and almost every time their sublime skill wins out. While Chicago is a deep team (arguably the deepest in the league), the importance of the two superstars and former Conn Smythe winners is without question. If the Kings use Kopitar’s size and defensive prowess coupled with the amazing skating ability shared by both him and Doughty they will be in a better situation in terms of keeping Kane and Toews off the score sheet.
This will not be an easy series for either team but the team that wins the Kopitar and Doughty/Kane and Toews matchup will almost assuredly be representing the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals.