By Allan Muir
The Chicago Blackhawks almost lost Game 4 because of one missing star. They ended up winning because another finally showed up.
Hobbled by the absence of suspended defender Duncan Keith, the Hawks gave up a pair of early goals to the Los Angeles Kings. But a tip-in from a crease-crashing Patrick Kane tied it up late in the second period, helping Chicago to win the game 3-2 and take a commanding 3-1 lead in the series.
The loss snapped the Kings' 15-game winning streak at the Staples Center and pushed them to the brink of elimination.
Marian Hossa scored the winner off a sensational feed from Michal Handzus 70 seconds into the third. It was Hossa's seventh goal of the playoffs and the fifth to come with the game tied. Bryan Bickell scored his team-leading eighth goal in the first.
"We know it's not finished yet," said Hossa. "We need to win one more. We have to make sure we're ready at home."
Here are some thoughts and observations from Thursday night's pivotal Game 4:
• First star honors at the rink went to Hossa, but this win was all about the in-game adjustments made by coach Joel Quenneville. Faced with the loss of Keith and quickly surmising that Sheldon Brookbank and Nick Leddy were doing more harm then good, he went to the whip with Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Michal Rozsival. Between them they stepped up with more than 75 hard minutes, including 10 for a penalty kill that went 3-for-3 on the night. They were smart, physical and calm, exactly what Chicago needed. Keith's puck skills were missed on the power play, but beyond that, Quenneville ensured that the makeshift D lived up to its end of the bargain.
Coach Q also earns high marks for his second-period decision to move Kane to the top line with Jonathan Toews and Bickell. Much like the call he made in the Detroit series to reunite Seabrook and Keith, this put some jump in the struggling winger's legs and allowed him to be a factor -- something he hadn't been to this point against LA.
"Sometimes you're doing it just to change things," Quenneville said of his line swaps. "We were behind. Maybe you get one, and we did."
• Is there anyone out there doing more with less than Bickell? This was another night of highlight moments for his free agency sizzle reel: a goal, another goal that should have been his that was stolen by Kane, a couple of posts, a few hits. He was in the middle of everything and that meant the threat level was elevated every time he hopped over the boards. And he did it while playing just 15:58. The guy makes so much out of his ice that it seems like he's double-shifting. You have to wonder if Quenneville won't do just that the next time the Hawks' offense gets mired in the muck.
• It was unfair to expect much out of Brookbank tonight. Keith's seat-filler hadn't played since April 27, so there was no way his legs or his timing would be up to this level of play. The best Chicago could have hoped for was some physical presence and a succession of safe chips off the wall. Instead...well, chances are he won't get the call if another Chicago defender goes down this spring. He made a horrible decision in the first to hit Voynov at the blueline instead of playing it by the book and dropping back into the zone. That led to a mad scramble and, eventually, Voynov's opening tally. On L.A.'s second goal, he was right there with Penner, but he was also behind him and failed to tie up his stick, leaving Pancakes free to knock home the rebound. After that, he got just two shifts in the second and three in the third. Tough night. The good news: Keith is back for Game 5.
• Kane's breakthrough came at the expense of one of hockey's truly inviolable rules: never steal a goal from a teammate. In this case, Bickell's nifty deflection of Hjalmarsson's point shot beat Jonathan Quick through the legs and was about to cross the goal line when Kane swooped in from the side of the net and hammered it home. "I told Bicksy I was sorry. I probably stole [the goal] from him," Kane said.
No probably about it. But it's also a sure thing that Bickell didn't care as long as it helps spark Kane's confidence. Getting Kane back on track could be a game changer ahead of the Cup Final, especially considering how he did it: by driving the net. That's pretty much what everyone's been urging him to do over the course of this seven-game slump, so no hard feelings as long as he follows up with more dirty work on Saturday.
Kane's relief after scoring was palpable, and he played the rest of the game like a man unburdened, buzzing the Kings' net and creating several good chances among his game-high seven shots. His best moment came in the third when he found himself alone to the left of Quick with the puck and all the time in the world. The patience he displayed while trying to out-wait Quick was beyond elite and he ended up putting the puck in a great spot. An unreal two-pad stack and an outstretched glove robbed him of a goal, but no matter. Everything about that play suggests that Kane is finally in the series.
• Even in victory last season, Kings' fans made a whipping boy out of assistant coach Jamie Kompon for the team's sputtering power play. He was let go over the summer (when have you ever heard of that happening to a Cup-winning ACO?), but he latched on with old buddy Quenneville in Chicago where he is the mastermind of a power play that is...struggling. The unit was 0-for-4 tonight, and managed just one shot on a key 53-second five-on-three opportunity when the Blackhawks were trailing 2-1.
The Hawks are so good at five-on-five and on the PK that this may not be an issue. That formula worked for the Bruins in 2011. Still, if you're a Hawks fan, you're probably a little worried, aren't you?
• After a long run last season and a commendable title defense this year, the Kings might finally have emptied the tank. No, this wasn't a must-win, but close enough that you have to wonder why they played with all the desperation that a kid has for candy the morning after Halloween.
They forgot the most important element of their Game 3 win -- controlling the neutral zone -- and turned the puck over repeatedly in transition. "That caused two goals tonight," admitted Drew Doughty.
The struggles of their defense were compounded by a lack of offensive opportunism. When they had their one chance to break the game open, Corey Crawford shut the door. The Kings were holding a 2-1 lead when his poke check disrupted a partial breakaway attempt by Justin Williams. He scores there and the Kings put the Hawks in a 3-1 hole. Instead, the missed chance seemed to deflate Los Angeles, which went on to record two shots--TWO! -- n that critical third period. Hard to imagine a defending champ offering less resistance with its season on the line.
The Kings, who are 1-7 on the road in the playoffs, now need to win twice at the United Center, and once again back at home, to take the series. Anyone see that happening after tonight? • Whenever this thing ends for the Kings -- and it's probably going to happen sooner than later -- there will be plenty of questions about what went wrong. Not one of them will revolve around Jeff Carter. He was brilliant again tonight, setting up Penner's goal with a determined drive to the net and creating good chances from three bad angle shots, thanks to his quick release. The finish wasn't there, but you can't knock the effort.