It was nearly a month ago when the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings met for the first time this season. It was the Kings’ day, at least before the game began. Fresh off their Stanley Cup, it was a morning/early afternoon celebration of ring receiving, Cup passing and banner raising.
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The Kings were expected to pick up where they left off last season, forging ahead of the pack in a lockout-shortened season that gave them plenty of time to sleep off that supposed Cup hangover. The Blackhawks, well, they were supposed to be good. But few probably would’ve guessed this good.
One month later, the Blackhawks are still building on their tremendous start that began on Jan. 19 in L.A. The Kings, meanwhile, are trying to find the consistency and dominance that so epitomized their 2012 spring.
When the Kings face the Blackhawks in Chicago on Sunday, it will be a matchup of teams vying for success. One is looking to maintain it, add to it. The other is looking to recapture it. The Blackhawks, who were feeling the Kings’ pain and inconsistency two seasons ago after their 2010 championship, can relate.
“We all know they’re a good team, we know ourselves. The year after we won the Cup the first 10-15 games we had a tough time getting into mentally, but then we got to playing some good hockey,” defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said. “It's a good team. We're going to have the same approach we had going into (Friday’s victory vs. San Jose).”
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Indeed the Blackhawks haven’t gotten to their stunning 11-0-3 mark this season by taking anyone lightly. That especially holds true for the defending-champion Kings. This is still the same group of guys, still the same roster that’s capable of busting out offensively and recapturing their game.
“We have a very dangerous opponent tomorrow,” Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said on Saturday, moments after his team had a brief practice, then skate with USA Warriors, at Soldier Field. “Let’s be ready for them.”
The Kings’ 2-1 victory over Columbus on Friday gave them a two-game winning streak for just the second time this season. Currently 12th overall in the Western Conference as of Saturday afternoon, the Kings hope they’re finally starting to hit their stride. It hasn’t helped that the Kings are fighting injuries, especially among their defensemen where they’re missing Matt Greene (back), Willie Mitchell (knee) and now Alec Martinez (upper body). But they’re focusing on their game, and the healthy bodies they have, instead of what they don’t.
“We're trying to improve on it," Kings coach Darryl Sutter told the L.A. media following Friday’s win. “There (are) parts of our game that we have to absolutely demand that we try and get better at it because of the inexperience on the back end.”
And as far as the Blackhawks, the Kings know what they’re getting.
“They're an awesome team. ... They’re where they are for a good reason. It’s not hard to figure out,” Sutter told Lisa Dillman of the L.A. Times on Saturday. Still, the Kings want to keep their opponent in perspective.
“They're not invincible,” Sutter continued to the Times. “We’d like to try again (to beat them). You know what, they’re not on a different planet than us.”
No, but the Blackhawks have been playing like they are. They’ve been relatively healthy, save the recent upper-body injury goaltender Corey Crawford possibly sustained Tuesday vs. Anaheim, or Thursday in practice. Ray Emery, who has already come up with some key victories, will be depended upon until Crawford recovers.
And everyone else has done their part. The top guys have been sensational, no doubt. But the Blackhawks have been one balanced team, garnering great performances – be they special teams, scoring or defense – from every player. Case in point was Friday night, when fourth liners Marcus Kruger and Jamal Mayers had two-point nights and third-line center Andrew Shaw garnered his first career power-play goal.
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“We’re winning games and getting goal scoring from different lines,” captain Jonathan Toews said. “You can work as hard as you want, do everything right. But if you don’t score or find ways to win games, your confidence isn’t at the same level. We work hard, we do the right things and things go our way. We want to keep that going.”
The Blackhawks are having the kind of start many thought the Kings would have. But even in this abbreviated season, there’s a lot of hockey left to play. The Blackhawks are surging but the Kings are still formidable. Much has changed since that season opener for both a month ago. But the goal, for each, remains the same.