CHICAGO – Sure, the Chicago Blackhawks have no shortage of skilled forwards with a history of clutch goals.
Scoring against the defending champions isn’t easy, either.
The Los Angeles Kings found out just how difficult it can be during Sunday’s 3-1 loss in Game 1 of the Western Conference final, whether they were being stopped by goalie Corey Crawford or one of his teammates. The best-of-seven series continues Wednesday in Chicago.
“We had a lot of good opportunities,” Kings coach Darryl Sutter said Monday. “I think you have to give Crawford a lot of credit.”
Crawford continued his strong post-season play with 25 saves in Chicago’s third consecutive win. He has allowed three goals during the win streak, and his 1.90 goals-against average and .933 save percentage in the playoffs leads the NHL.
But it isn’t just the guy in net. Others are stepping up for the Blackhawks.
The Blackhawks shut down the Kings’ top line of Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar and Marian Gaborik, who came in with 16 goals and 24 assists in 14 playoff games.
Kopitar entered the series with five goals and 14 assists, while Gaborik has a playoff-best nine goals. But they had little effect on Sunday’s game.
The Blackhawks had Jonathan Toews’ line matched against them on even-strength shifts until the final minute, and all those three could muster was a combined six shots.
“We had some success in their zone,” Gaborik said. “We want to keep them in their zone as much as possible and create chances. We had some zone time, but we have to generate more, too, to get to Crawford and to get some goals.”
Kopitar and Toews are finalists for this year’s Selke Trophy, given to the NHL’s best defensive forward. Toews won the award last year. Marian Hossa, who plays on the same line as Toews, also is one of the league’s best defensive forwards.
“I think both lines have all the ingredients that make them top lines, top lines throughout the league,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “It’s a good challenge for us. I think you’re just comfortable with it both ways. At the end of the day hopefully they can get the job done.”
Toews came through with a big goal in the third period after having one disallowed earlier in the game. Hossa had two assists, and the Blackhawks improved to 7-0 at home in the post-season this year.
“They’ve got top players, top scorers, on their first line,” Hossa said. “You want to make sure you know where they are on the ice. In Game 1, I thought we did a pretty good job. They still had some chances, but (Crawford) was great for us.”
Crawford had several neat stops after Los Angeles tied it at 1 early in the second, denying Kyle Clifford on a 2-on-1 rush and stopping Gaborik and Brown in rapid succession midway through the period.
He also made a big save on Jeff Carter early in the third. Defenceman Nick Leddy came up big in the first period when he tied up Mike Richards on a 2-on-1, squashing a prime scoring chance for Los Angeles, and the Blackhawks continue to make noise as they eye a championship repeat.
They are about to get a little louder, too.
Defenceman Niklas Hjalmarsson got medical clearance to talk on Monday for the first time in two weeks. He got struck in the throat on a shot from the point by Minnesota defenceman Jonas Brodin in Game 2 against the Wild on May 4 at the United Center, no ordinary block for a player with more of them than anyone else in this post-season.
Hjalmarsson had trouble breathing for a few minutes and acknowledged he was scared at first.
“I was just glad I recovered quickly,” he said. “Once I figured out that I’m able to breathe, it was a big relief. I guess I was pretty lucky and I’m just glad I’m able to talk again and can’t wait to get rid of that neck guard that I’m still wearing.”
Hjalmarsson did not miss a shift because of the injury, but medical staff told him not to speak—not easy, particularly when he was on the ice. He did his best to follow orders but had a few slip-ups in that area.
“I think I did a pretty good job,” he said. “I’m not the guy that talks the most in the locker room. I don’t think the guys actually noticed it too much.”