Blackhawks-Kings could turn on battle of top lines
CHICAGO -- It's one of those matchups that should be watched closely throughout the Western Conference Final between the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings.
Chicago leads the best-of-7 series 1-0 heading into Game 2 on Wednesday at United Center (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TSN, RDS), and a big reason is the matchup between the Blackhawks' top line and the Kings' first unit.
"They're a great line," Kings coach Darryl Sutter said after practice Tuesday. "Jonathan Toews … he is the best two-way player in the National Hockey League. Hossa is right there next in terms of wingers. That's for sure."
That's without mentioning the play of power forward Bryan Bickell at left wing on that line. Bickell, who's alternated between the top three units in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, had two shots, four hits and finished plus-1 in Game 1.
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville used left wing Patrick Sharp in Bickell's spot to conclude a series victory against the Minnesota Wild in the Western Conference Second Round, but decided to go with Bickell's size against the Kings. The way it's currently comprised, Chicago's first line has elite two-way forwards (Toews and Hossa) plus size, toughness and net-front presence (Bickell).
It's similar to what the Kings have with left wing Marian Gaborik, center Anze Kopitar and right wing Dustin Brown, who were one of the most productive lines in the playoffs prior to going pointless Sunday.
"You're comfortable with it both ways," Quenneville said of his top unit. "You think you can generate against a real good team and a real good line. I think both centers are excellent both ways. It's a great matchup. It's a great test. I think both lines have all the ingredients to make them top lines throughout the League, so it's a good challenge for us. I just think we're comfortable with it both ways, and at the end of the day hopefully they can get the job done."
The Kings are putting the same expectations on their top line.
"I think they have Toews try to shut down [Kopitar] because he's so good at that kind of game, but it kind of works for us too, because [Kopitar] can do it the other way," Kings defenseman Drew Doughty said. "It's fun to watch. If we want to win this series, [Kopitar's] going to have to win that battle."
It's entertaining because the combination of forwards makes the two lines nearly mirror images. Each unit has an elite two-way forward at center (Toews and Kopitar). Each has a player with game-changing speed and a strong shot (Hossa and Gaborik). Each has a toughness quotient with nice offensive upside and net presence (Bickell and Brown).
The units also shared the ice quite a bit.
Quenneville usually likes to use his third and fourth lines to check opposing top lines in the regular season, but in the playoffs he goes with Toews and often puts Hossa next to him. That's the way it went in Game 1, when Toews' line was most often combined with shutdown defensemen Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson whenever Kopitar went over the boards.
According to Shiftchart.com, Toews was on the ice at the same time as Kopitar about 70 percent of the time. The majority of that time was spent with Hossa and Bickell while playing against Kopitar's line. That's largely the result of having the last line change on home ice but speaks to Quenneville's trust in his top forwards.
Sutter has the same confidence in his players.
Neither side's top unit has been fun to play against in the postseason, which is probably why Toews gave the answer he did when asked if he enjoys this challenge.
"Well, I mean, someone's got to do it," the Blackhawks captain said. "Defense has an offensive side to it, so if you try to make [Kopitar] play in his own end, I think you're doing a good job of making those players ineffective. So that's what we'll try to do as a line, for the most part. We're always having guys coming back hard, especially trying to take their rush game away."
The Kings say the same thing about the Blackhawks.
"We're out there pretty much line-against-line the whole game," Gaborik said. "Obviously, we don't want to take chances in terms of trying to cheat against that line, because they're going to make you pay. We just have to play our game and play responsible and try to create offensively."
Easier said than done, of course, for each team. That's what makes it such a compelling competition whenever Toews and Kopitar head onto the ice. Fans love it and their teammates do too.
"If you look at both top lines, everybody on those two lines are good all-around forwards and responsible in all the zones," said Sharp, who spent much of the regular season playing with Toews and Hossa. "If that's going to be a matchup, I think both sides are comfortable with it and you've got to have respect for all six of those guys out there every shift. They're all dangerous and it's fun hockey to watch."