Free of the quicksand they had to slog through during the second round against the Wild, the Blackhawks had room to roam against the Kings in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals — and they used it.
The Hawks re-engaged their speed game, recovered after a difficult decision by officials to disallow a goal and continued to ride red-hot goalie Corey Crawford to defeat the Kings 3-1 on Sunday at the United Center and draw first blood in the best-of-seven series.
"It's nice to have a little space," winger Bryan Bickell said. "It was getting mentally frustrating in that Minnesota series. (The Kings) kind of have a different style, kind of what we bring with our speed."
That speed had the Hawks looking more like the team that raced to the Stanley Cup last season as they solved Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick with a goal in each period to remain unbeaten at home in the playoffs at 7-0.
Brandon Saad had a goal and an assist and Duncan Keith and Jonathan Toews also scored to provide more than enough offense for Crawford, who made 25 saves and now sports eye-popping numbers in these playoffs. The veteran improved to 9-4 in the postseason with a 1.90 goals-against average and .933 save percentage. Crawford allowed only Tyler Toffoli's goal to outduel Quick, who yielded the three goals on 20 Hawks shots.
Except for a momentum-changing call midway through the second period, the Hawks controlled the pace. Leading 1-0 after a first-period power-play goal by Saad, Toews appeared to have given the Hawks a two-goal advantage when his shot following a rush to the net was kicked in by Kings defenseman Slava Voynov.
The Hawks captain sailed into and over Quick, and after much discussion — and a review by the league as to whether the puck crossed the line — officials waved off the goal, much to the displeasure of coach Joel Quenneville and the crowd of 21,832. It was determined that Toews made incidental contact on Quick that prevented the goalie from making the save.
While the Hawks were sent reeling by the decision, the Kings received a boost and tied it on Toffoli's goal just over a minute later.
"It's a momentum swing," Kings center Mike Richards said. "I'm not sure of the call, but it was fortunate for us."
Fortunately for the Hawks, there were able to regroup.
"You just have to," said Keith, who scored the game-winner later in the second when his shot from the point deflected off the stick of the Kings' Trevor Lewis and bounced past Quick. "When you have to do something, you do it. There was nothing we could do, so just move on and try to play the right way."
The Hawks did, and that meant with some speed to their game — something lacking during the Wild series.
"It wasn't as restricted, but (the Kings) are a good off-the-rush team — they create rush chances themselves," Quenneville said. "We have to respect that knowing that we don't want to get into a complete rush game with them, knowing the quality is going to be higher-end for them.
"It's all going to be determined by how well we check. We have to do things quick and quick and quick, whether it's puck movement or indirect plays."
Added Toews, who sealed the deal late in the third on a three-on-one break by converting a terrific no-look pass from Johnny Oduya:
"It's a little more comparable to the style we played against St. Louis (in the first round), a team that plays physical and fast but at the same time plays offense. If we're checking well, we're playing well on our own side of the puck. We can try to create our own chances off of that, try to make them make mistakes. The more we can make them worry about us, the better situation we'll be in."
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