By Adrian Dater
Remember when the Chicago Blackhawks were “panicked” about their playoff situation, and how their exit visas from the postseason seemed imminent? Down three games to one against Detroit in the Western Conference semifinals, tee-time jokes about the Presidents' Trophy winners abounded.
Five straight Blackhawks victories later, the Red Wings have been playing golf for a few days and unless the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings win four of the next five games, they’ll be free to make reservations at the country club, too.
Chicago easily beat the Kings, 4-2, in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals on Sunday at the United Center to take a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. The action now shifts to the Staples Center for two games.
While the Blackhawks keep getting stronger after facing their big moment of adversity against Detroit, the Kings look like a fatigued, beaten-up squad that's in sudden disarray.
Los Angeles played Game 2 without alternate captain Mike Richards, who suffered the dreaded “upper body” injury on Saturday night. His 55 playoff points since 2010 lead all NHL players, so this was a big loss. The Kings actually had a better start, statistically, than they did in Game 1, but just never really seemed into Game 2 against a hungrier-looking ‘Hawks squad.
The Kings are now 1-7 on the road for this postseason, while Chicago is 8-1 at home. Expect the Kings to stave off elimination in L.A., but that return trip to the Windy City looks ominous.
Here are some other observations from Game 2:
• As long as you are healthy enough to suit up, there are no excuses in hockey. But it seems clear that the Kings; star center, Anze Kopitar, is playing hurt right now, and it’s starting to catch up with him.
Kopitar, frankly, looks slow. The Los Angeles Times' Hall of Fame hockey writer Helene Elliott reported in Sunday’s edition that the dynamic pivot is likely hampered by some kind of ailment. Kopitar has no explosiveness in his stride, and he’s not playing with his usual strength around the net.
The grind of a short summer last year, followed by -- in my opinion -- an unsound decision to play overseas during the lockout (where he suffered a knee injury), followed by another deep playoff run, seems to have taken a serious toll on Kopitar’s health.
If he’s not at his usual strength, the Kings just aren’t the same team.
• Blackhawks blueliner Duncan Keith keeps getting better as the playoffs go along. He’s been outstanding at both ends of the ice, posting a plus-2 game on Sunday.
• Chicago’s Brandon Saad keeps showing why he might actually be the best rookie in the league this year. He chipped in two assists during the win and created problems all night for the Kings with his speed.
• Chicago is getting in on the Kings defense -- which was never speedy to begin with, Drew Doughty excepted -- and creating turnovers.
• When Michal Handzus scored to make it 4-0 in the second period, it broke a 34-game playoff streak by the Kings in which they had allowed three goals or less.
• Jarret Stoll looked pretty good in Game 1, following a layoff due to an injury suffered in the first round. But the rust belatedly appeared in Game 2, as the veteran Kings center was sometimes caught out of position on the ice, especially on Handzus’ marker.
Stoll failed to outmuscle Patrick Kane in a puck battle along the boards at center ice, allowing the smaller Kane to get a pass out to the streaking Patrick Sharp who sent the puck to Handzus, who finished off the odd-man rush. Stoll can’t let that puck slip out there.
• The Kings survived a scare when Doughty returned after appearing being tripped by Bryan Bickell late in the first period, which led to a penalty. Doughty looked like he twisted an ankle on the play, but he seemed OK when he returned.
• The Kings were credited with just three takeaways all night. They just haven’t been able to rattle Chicago's defense with their forechecking game and can’t skate with the Blackhawks well enough to get to the puck.
• Kings coach Darryl Sutter replaced defenseman Jake Muzzin in the lineup with Alec Martinez, but the move backfired. Martinez was a minus-2 in 12:44 of action.
• About the Mike Richards situation: Hey, Sutter himself said the hit by Dave Bolland late in Game 1 wasn’t something that he was angry about -- at least publicly. He also said Richards was “fine” entering the game. If he was “fine” and there was no issue with the hit, then maybe Kings fans should direct their ire at Sutter for not being truthful -- not at the NHL for failing to suspend Bolland.
After the game, Sutter elaborated on his previous statements by saying that he made the decision to scratch Richards after he developed symptoms during warmups.
• Everybody thought the Kings looked tired and all done after Game 2 of their first-round series with St. Louis, too, and they won four straight. Count the Kings out at your peril. • That said, the Kings just can’t seem to score right now and it’s hard to see how they’re going to turn it around. They’ve only got 29 goals in 14 playoff games, and their top two centers (Kopitar and Richards) are banged up.