NHL Analysis: Chicago Clinches The West

One night after the Boston Bruins punched their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final, the Chicago Blackhawks locked up their chance to hoist sport’s greatest trophy. Game 5 against the Los Angeles Kings looked like it would be an easy coronation, ended up as drawn-out confrontation, but still ended in celebration for Chicago.

The Blackhawks struck immediately with two goals in the first period. Duncan Keith, back from his one-game suspension scored the opener and Patrick Kane lit the lamp for the second goal. Kane was fed by Jonathan Toews, and Bryan Bickell, the forward who seemed to be everywhere in this series.

But Chicago had a mental lapse on the power play and allowed Los Angeles to get a shorthanded goal, with the Kings’ Justin Williams again inserting himself into the action, with a feed to Dustin King. Early in the third period, the Kings tied it up.

That set the stage for a frenzied final five minutes, where Bickell assisted Kane on a goal that appeared to sew things up with four minutes left. But in Los Angeles’ last desperate attack, Mike Richards tied the game with ten seconds on the clock and forced overtime.

Los Angeles controlled the first overtime, winning shots 11-6, but Chicago goalie Corey Crawford bailed his team out and forced a second OT. Finally, Kane completed his hat trick with the goal that sent Chicago to the Finals with a 4-3 win.

Chicago won this series because they’re different from Pittsburgh, the other high-profile favorite with a lot of offensive stars. Whereas Pittsburgh looks helpless if forced out of a free-flowing offensive game that allows the stars to shine, Chicago has established that it can also win in the grind.

Los Angeles did what they needed to do in most every game of this series—made it a low-scoring battle and kept shots fairly limited. Game 5 was no different, as neither team broke the 30-shot threshold in regulation. By rights, this is a series that a defensive team with Jonathan Quick in goal, should be able to win. Instead, Chicago was able to grind it out.

But on the same note, the question will be asked whether this is about Chicago showing it can win in any style or about the simple failure of Quick. It’s a fair question, as the Kings gave their elite goalie everything he needed to win a series. When you have a game like last night where you score three regulation goals and allow less than 30 shots, even an above-average goalie should get you a win.

Quick is still a great goaltender, and between last year and the first two rounds this year—six postseason series in all—he built up a lot of credit. But it cannot be denied that some of the credit was spent on a lackluster showing against the Blackhawks.

Bickell was the best player in this series, and was very active offensively with eight shots, and he ended up with two assists. Moving forward, you have to question whether Chicago really wants Bickell taking eight shots, while Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa combine for three, but for now I’m sure the folks in the Windy City are content to ride the hot hand.

They’re riding the hot hand to a second Finals appearance in four years, including 2010’s championship run. The Boston-Chicago battle will begin on Wednesday night. TheSportsNotebook’s NHL analysis will be back on Tuesday to preview the Finals.