LOS ANGELES -- There are few surprises between the two teams in the 2014 Western Conference Final.
They have played each other too often in too many big games to have secrets from each other. If there were a hidden wrinkle or two introduced by the Los Angeles Kings of the Chicago Blackhawks, it has been observed and game-planned against by the other.
"I think both teams are well-coached, have great scouts, and I think everyone is pretty prepared as far as what the other team is going to do," Chicago forward Patrick Sharp said. "It takes a couple of games to know the tendencies of the guys you are playing against. Every series we have ever played in, by the end of the series it seems we know the other team inside out and vice versa and we are starting to see that now."
The teams are tied at one win apiece in this best-of-7 series with Game 3 at Staples Center on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS).
For four of the first five periods of this series, the Blackhawks dictated the pace with their speed and offensive-zone time. Los Angeles dominated the second period of Game 1, managing 17 shots but not enough goals in a 3-1 loss. Three nights later, the Kings were down by two goals again 38 minutes in; this time, however, they started to find answers and countered, scoring six straight goals in a 22-minute span to turn a two-goal deficit into a 6-2 victory.
Chicago forward Patrick Kane expected nothing less than the punch, counter-punch flow of this series. Yes, the Blackhawks won this very series last year against the Kings in five games to advance to the Stanley Cup Final, but he knows that was a product of good fortune as well as hard work.
"Both teams kind of figure out each other and make adjustments, try out different things throughout the game, whether it's power play, penalty kill, breakouts, forechecks, different things like that," Kane said. "We've seen a lot of different things from teams trying to slow us down. That's something we'll have to adjust to, too."
It is, in effect, the series within the series.
For the first 100 minutes of the series, the Blackhawks generated chances with their patented stretch pass, a quick-strike transition tactic in which the forwards fly the defensive zone after a turnover, looking for a long outlet pass from a defenseman.
The Kings knew it was coming; they had seen it on tape. Those great scouts referenced by Sharp had put together advanced-scouting packages showing the fits the play had given the St. Louis Blues and the Minnesota Wild, Chicago's opponents in the first two rounds.
Yet nothing could prepare them for the play in action, with the speed of the forwards and the accuracy of the outlet passes combining into a deadly effective ballet.
Drew Doughty, the top defenseman for the Kings, admits subtle changes to his game happen every time he plays the Blackhawks.
"I can't be cheating up the ice even when sometimes I want to be that fourth man on the rush, because I know [Chicago] will be hanging back for breakaways," Doughty said. "I have kind of learned against this team, because I have gotten in trouble in the past playing a little too offensively because that gets me caught. I've learned that defense has to come first against this team."
But Doughty found a way to contribute offensively in Game 2, setting up a power-play goal by Jeff Carter in the third period that tied the game at 2-2. Los Angeles had had no success against the Blackhawks' stifling penalty kill in Game 1, generating few dangerous chances against a unit that had allowed just one goal at United Center in seven playoff games.
He did it by focusing on getting the puck on net, finding new shooting lanes against a team that clogs the usual ones while killing penalties and blocks an excessive amount of shots. Doughty made sure his shot from the point was directed at Corey Crawford, the Chicago goalie. He didn't necessarily want to get it past Crawford, but he wanted to make sure he put it in an area where puck luck could take effect.
That's exactly what happened. Carter got the shaft of his stick on the shot and deflected it past Crawford.
Many believe the Blackhawks will have to counter in Game 3. They can't let the offensive onslaught of Game 2 linger. They can't let the Kings build on the confidence generated in the final 22 minutes on Wednesday.
"Sometimes in these series you feel each other out a little bit," Kane said. "With these two teams there's really none of that, because we're so familiar with each other from last season, the amount of times we've played each other. We knew what to expect from each team. They're a great team. It's a good challenge for us. And we welcome a challenge like this too.
If these teams are so prepared for each other, for the attacks and counterattacks to come, ready to introduce new wrinkles and then watch as they are game-planned into ineffectiveness by the opposition, what will ultimately determine who wins the race to four victories?
"It all comes down to heart, whoever is going to work hardest for that one inch," Doughty said.
And that is just the way it should be when rivals get together with a berth to the Stanley Cup Final on the line.
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