It’s a line that’s benefitted the Los Angeles Kings greatly this postseason, one that’s combined Anze Kopitar, Marian Gaborik and, most of the time, Dustin Brown.
Slowing that group down hasn’t been easy; just ask the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks, who ultimately failed to do that. The Blackhawks took their stab at it on Sunday and, as first-run attempts go, got the desired results. But they know it’s not going to be easy to nix that line throughout this Western Conference Final series.
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Bryan Bickell, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa drew the Kings’ top line in Game 1 on Sunday – Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya were the defensive pair on it – and the Blackhawks kept those three relatively quiet in their 3-1 victory over the Kings. The Blackhawks are happy with what they did on Sunday but know it’s just one game.
Given the defense on the Blackhawks’ top line, especially the two-way games of Toews and Hossa, coach Joel Quenneville was fine with that matchup.
“I think both centers, they’re excellent both ways. And it’s a great matchup, a good test. Both lines have all the ingredients to make top lines and top lines throughout the league,” he said. “It’s a good challenge for us; we’re just comfortable both ways and hopefully they can get the job done.”
Kopitar and Co. had their shots on goal – actually, Kopitar didn’t but Gaborik and Brown each had three. Even with a quiet Game 1, however, Kopitar leads all in postseason scoring with 19 points. Gaborik is right behind him with 15 points, including a league-leading nine goals. Hossa, who’s neighbors with Gaborik in their native Slovakia, said shutting down that line “is a big challenge.”
“They have top scorers on first line and you want to make sure you know where they are on the ice,” he said. “I think in Game 1 we did a pretty good job. They still created some chances but (Corey Crawford) was great for us. It's going to be a good challenge for us.”
Toews said Kopitar is always a priority, regardless of line mates. The trick is keeping Kopitar and his wingers in their own zone. It’s a tough task, but that’s where Toews is happy to have help.
“I'm lucky I got Hossa out there. If I make a mistake out there, too, he's hauling back to make up for it, too,” Toews said. “I think with Bicks, as well, we've been playing smart defensively, getting pucks out of our zone. We got better and better as the game went along tonight. We know we have a tough job to do if we're going to be seeing a lot of that line.”
Hjalmarsson said he and Oduya approach this top line like they would any other top line, although there’s always an adjustment period, especially since they’ve been used to seeing the Wild’s top group the past six games.
“You just have a good gap, good sticks, not try to give them too much time,” said Hjalmarsson. “It’s a little bit of an adjustment, especially the first game. I think we let them have a couple - too many - good chances. (Crawford) made a couple of big saves. We can do a better job with not giving them as many scoring chances next game.”
The Blackhawks faced a big test in stopping Gaborik, Kopitar and Brown. They passed the first round. They know there are still more tests upcoming.
“It’s a good combination for them,” Hjalmarsson said. “It’s going to be a great challenge for us to try to shut them down.”