By Allan Muir
It doesn't take much to shift momentum during the NHL playoffs.
The Chicago Blackhawks dominated the Los Angeles Kings through the first two games of the Western Conference Finals, controlling the neutral zone and picking apart LA's defense with a series of quick precision passes that allowed them to test goaltender Jonathan Quick repeatedly and with great success.
But the Hawks weren't a particularly good team in Game 3 on Tuesday night. The energy wasn't there. Neither was the puck possession that left the Kings spinning their wheels in Chicago. And so instead of knocking out the defending champs when they had the chance, they allowed them to crawl up out of the ditch with a 3-1 win.
And all of a sudden, the wind has changed direction.
Tonight the Blackhawks will try to find their A-game and wrest back control of the series. But they'll have to do it with their No. 1 defenseman, who'll be up in the press box, and their top two offensive players mired in devastating slumps.
Duncan Keith was yanked from active duty after being tagged with a one-game suspension on Wednesday. NHL discipline czar Brendan Shanahan took issue with Keith's reckless slash/high stick to the face of Jeff Carter that left the Kings' forward short a couple of chiclets in Game 3.
Good call? Probably. Keith immediately felt shame for his Tim McCracken-type stickwork and tried to apologize, but that doesn't erase the dangerous play, especially from a repeat offender.
That brief lapse in discipline puts the Hawks in a tough spot. It's expected that Sheldon Brookbank, who's been in street clothes since April 27, will step in to pick up some of the slack. "I'm ready," he said on Wednesday. "I had another stretch in my career where I didn't play for a while, too. I feel like I'm ready to go. It's not easy staying with it and staying ready, but it's part of this job. It's one of the reasons they brought me here."
Not that anyone should expect too much from him. Brookbank is filling out the roster, not replacing Keith. The veteran averaged just 12:45 of ice time over 26 regular-season appearances, so at best he plays a limited role on the third pair at five-on-five.
While everyone will have to step up, the real pressure could fall on Nick Leddy. He'll likely be promoted to the top pair alongside Brent Seabrook, which means Leddy will probably get a steady diet of Justin Williams, Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar at even strength, and additional minutes on the power play and penalty kill.
Leddy's strength is his speed and his ability to make a play out of his own zone. As long as he sticks to his game, he'll be alright, but he'll need Seabrook to keep things steady on the back end. That's not a sure thing. The veteran was a mess early in the playoffs and only found his game after being re-teamed with Keith for Game 5 of the Detroit series. To stabilize Chicago's top pair, Seabrook must be smart and physical without being overly aggressive. If he tries to do too much, the Kings will pick them apart.
While Keith has an excuse for missing the game, the Hawks have to worry whether Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will show up.
It's a testament to how good this team really is that Chicago has gotten to this point with so little offense from Toews and so little of, well, anything really from Kane.
After combining for 46 goals in the regular season, they have just three in the playoffs. Coach Joel Quenneville sees what they're going through, but it doesn't mean he's not frustrated.
"[They're] playing against top defenses," he said. "They get a lot of attention both sides of the puck. Scoring has been tough throughout the playoffs for everybody. I think Johnny is such a competitor, he complements our team game the way you hope. But at the same time, offensively, it would be nice to see a little bit more finish."
Toews, to his credit, is finding ways to make himself useful while he waits for his hands to thaw. He's battling. He's going to the right places. He's hustling on defense. But he's also struggling on the draw (just 38 percent in Game 3) and he has only one assist in the series. Still, it feels like he just needs a bounce to go his way to get the props turning again.
The participation of Kane, on the other hand, is verifiable only by study of the game tapes in which, if you look really carefully, he can be spotted on the periphery of the play. Hard for anyone to get results from the hinterlands.
"It's never fun going through the slumps," Kane said on Wednesday. "As an offensive player you want to score, be there for your team, especially when that's what you're counted on to do. "I have to have the will to do it, stop thinking that maybe this is going to be the game or the next game is going to be the game, and make sure my next opportunity is the one that's going to happen."
Kane defended himself, saying he hadn't suddenly become "a bad player." And, of course, he's right. But he has become a player who has very little use. If he's not scoring, he doesn't bring much to the table.
Quenneville thinks it's a matter of getting Kane's feet moving faster.
"When he has more speed in his game, he seems to have the puck a lot more," the coach said. "When he's playing his best hockey, he has the puck, he's dangerous with it. When he has the puck, not too many players in the league can do what he can do."
True enough. But he can't simply stand around and hope that Marian Hossa or Michal Handzus get it to him. Kane needs to stop worrying about scoring and start focusing on getting to the right places as quickly as possible. And it'd be best if he committed to that approach tonight. The Hawks already are down one man. With momentum shifting, they can't afford to be short any more than that.