Pivotal Game 4 for Hawks, Kings

Momentum is ripe for the taking in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Los Angeles Kings Thursday night at the Staples Center. On the one hand, Chicago can take a commanding 3 – 1 series lead heading back to Chicago with a win. On the other hand, LA can tie up the series after going down 2 – 0 heading back to LA just a few nights ago.

What may tip the scales is the suspension of Chicago’s Duncan Keith for his hit on Jeff Carter in Tuesday night’s game or the possible return of Mike Richards.

Keith was assessed a double-minor penalty for high-sticking Carter in the face in the neutral zone of Tuesday night’s game and suspended Wednesday afternoon by the NHL Department of Player Safety. He was assessed a one-game suspension, but it could be a major issue for Chicago. Keith logged more ice time than any skater on either team Tuesday night, including nearly 4 minutes of shorthanded time. Replacing him will be tricky, given how well he’s frustrated LA’s offensive efforts.

Richards has skated with LA during practice and could be close to a return, though there is no official word on exactly when that will be. He has been injured since Game 1 of this series after a hit by Dave Bolland that left him with concussion-like symptoms, according to team personnel. Despite missing the last two games, Richards ranks third on the Kings with 10 points (2G, 8A) and is nearly 50 percent at the faceoff circle in the postseason thus far.

As for players that will definitely be there tonight, Chicago must rely on the defensive capability of the likes of Nick Leddy, Michael Rozsival and Johnny Oduya to pick up the slack left by Keith. Combined, all three skaters have an even plus/minus rating on the ice and have been able to stifle any significant momentum into Chicago’s zone. Still, focus should remain high for these three. As for the other two defenseman, it’s business as usual.

Keith’s linemate, Brent Seabrook, was right behind Keith in total ice time Tuesday night and has been a physical force that can block shots from the point. Niklas Hjalmarsson matched Seabrook’s ice time and recorded four blocked shots, including one that struck his knee, forcing him to trudge on through the rest of the play. (If you haven’t seen it, you really should see his dedication.)

Chicago’s defense is taking care of business, it’s the offense that could not get anything going in Game 3. Chicago only recorded 8 giveaways, but puck possession was a key factor in the lack of offensive pressure. On the night, Chicago only recorded 26 shots on-goal against Jonathon Quick. Patrick Kane could not get himself to open ice – strange as that may sound – for any significant chances or lanes to open up. Marian Hossa, who is usually one of the best under-pressure stickhandlers in the NHL, could not manage to put a fork in the puck for a good portion of the night.

None of that seems true if you take a look a Bryan Bickell. The 27-year-old winger has exploded in the postseason recording 7 goals, placing him behind only teammate Patrick Sharp (8) and Boston’s David Krejci (9) in postseason goals. He gets to the front of the net and crashes the crease, creating havoc for the goalie. His level of play has earned him a spot on Chicago’s top line and he has been integral to Chicago’s success through 15 games.

LA has not lost at home this postseason at the Staples Center and has outscored opponent’s 21 – 9 through 8 games. The environment is loud and energetic, which gives a distinct home-ice advantage to the Kings. Even worse for Chicgao, LA is 22 – 0 – 0 on the season when scoring first at home – so that first goal is a big factor for Chicago.

Look for crisper passes and better entry attempts for Chicago in Game 4 and a fast-paced game from both contenders in an effort to take significant momentum heading back to Chicago.

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