By Allan Muir
No team has ever won a best-of-seven series in three games, but the Los Angeles Kings know their season, and their hopes of defending their 2012 Stanley Cup, comes down to tonight's home game against the Chicago Blackhawks.
"Obviously it's not do-or-die, but it is," said Kings forward Justin Williams, channeling his inner Yogi Berra on Monday.
A win tonight at the Staples Center, where they're on a 14-0 run, and the Kings silence the doubters and earn a chance to even it up on Thursday night.
Lose and Game 4 becomes a wake.
True, there's always a chance that the Kings could rebound from being down 3-0 if they stumble tonight. The 2010 Philadelphia Flyers team that featured current Kings Mike Richards and Jeff Carter turned that very trick by coming back to eliminate the Boston Bruins. But that was against a mediocre team with an unproven Tuukka Rask in net. These Hawks are a different beast, battle-proven and capable of quickly crushing the life out of the Kings if they're not significantly better than what they've shown so far in this series.
Of course, they can be. This is the same team that recovered from a 2-0 deficit against the St. Louis Blues in the first round by pumping up the aggression and running off four straight wins.
But those Kings seemed fresher. And they certainly were healthier.
If there's been one obvious reason why the Kings find themselves down -- and no, it's not the apparent transformation of Jonathan Quick from goaltending god to mere mortal -- it's the absence of energetic puck pursuit. When the Kings are going, they're hard on the biscuit in all three zones. In Games 1 and 2, they were consistently a step behind the Hawks and ended up chasing the play.
That's the mark of a tired team. If the lockout helped them avoid a Stanley Cup hangover during the regular season, it looks like the time to settle up has finally come.
Meanwhile, Chicago looked much fresher and was effective at taking away L.A.'s time and space, especially in the neutral zone. "Give them credit, they're a good checking team," Williams said. "They check you and try to get you frustrated. In turn, that's what we do. But they've been more successful at it than we have."
Basically, the Hawks earned the right to set the pace of the game. And that's what the Kings have to steal back to avoid going down 3-0.
Playing at home offers advantages -- last stick down in the circle, last change, a fired-up crowd -- but it doesn't regulate hustle and desire. That's something they have to find within themselves.
They also have to find a way to get traffic in front of, and pucks behind, Chicago's Corey Crawford.
The Kings' scoring woes are well known. With just 29 goals in 15 playoff games, they own the worst offense of any team that captured at least one playoff round. If they're going to come back in this series, they have to keep up with a Chicago offense that gets scoring from all four forward lines.
The Kings would be happy to get a little something from one.
"I think it's pretty fair to say, as a line, we're collectively in a slump," said Dustin Brown. The captain has just one goal in his last seven games, which doesn't look so bad compared to the one-in-11 stat line of his center, Anze Kopitar.
Fatigue is part of the problem, he admits. "[We're] probably not as fresh as we were last year either. At the same time, this time of year, when you’re going through it, you’re not thinking, ‘Oh, I’m tired.’ You’re reloading, getting ready to go again."
The more pressing issue is the inability of their big forwards to work the cycle, pound Chicago's defense, and earn their ground down low. No one will ever mistake this team for the 1984 Edmonton Oilers, but when the Kings control the puck and the end boards like they can, they score enough to win. When they don't, well...
"We can do better," Brown said. "It's a matter of executing."
That hasn't been a problem for the Hawks, who have taken the Kings off their game by keeping the tempo high. They'll try to do that again tonight with tight gaps and short, quick passes to keep the puck moving and Los Angeles in chase mode.
"I don't think we want to change," said Chicago coach Joel Quenneville.
Coming off a tough seven-game set against the Red Wings, the Hawks are tired, too. But they're finding a way to win. If the Kings can't come up with an answer tonight, they'll be able to get all the rest they want by this weekend.