By Allan Muir
Let's just describe Patrick Kane's arrival in the Western Conference Final as "fashionably late."
Kane, who'd been lambasted for his lack of involvement earlier in the series, completed a hat trick 11:40 into the second overtime period to give the Blackhawks a 4-3 win over the Los Angeles Kings in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals. The win sent Chicago back to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 2009.
"I knew it was coming as soon as he picked up the puck," Kane told NBC Sports Network. "[Bryan Bickell] made a great chip, and Johnny made a great pass, I just tried to get it off as quick as I could."
The Hawks will meet the Boston Bruins for the first time ever in the Stanley Cup Finals. The series starts Wednesday night at the United Center in Chicago.
"It'll be nice to stay in Chicago and start the series here," Kane said.
Here are some thoughts and observations from the Western Conference clincher:
• The third time was the charm for Toews and Kane in OT. In the first extra period, Toews mesmerized a trio of Kings' defenders with some slithery moves before trying to set up Kane with a tap-in, but his pass sailed between Kane's stick and skates. In the second OT, the Hawks came in on a two-on-one, but Robyn Regehr got his stick down and blocked the attempted cross-crease pass when Toews failed to saucer it. There was no mistake on the clincher though, as Kane hung back near the top of the circle, giving Toews an easier target and himself plenty of space to get off the winner.
• It looked like Kane had won it when he scored his second goal at 16:08 of the third. Bickell stripped Justin Williams of the puck behind the L.A. net and threw it out front to Kane, who deftly maneuvered around a sprawling defender before burying it top cheese. Just like a similarly patient play toward the end of Game 4, this was Kane at his best: Patient, slick and lethal. If he's playing at this level in the Finals, he's going to be a challenge to contain.
• The Kings were furious that Bickell wasn't whistled for interfering with Williams on the play, and they had a point. At first look, it appeared that Williams simply lost his balance as he was swinging behind his net, but replays clearly showed that Bickell's left hand came off his stick and grabbed onto Williams' sweater. A critical moment, a critical play and another brutal officiating miscue. I hate to harp on it because I fully respect how tough that gig is, but this was the Conference Finals -- a time when only the best officials should be on the ice -- and we're still seeing results impacted by blown calls. It's unacceptable.
• It was another eventful night for Bickell. Yep, eventful. The big winger assisted on Kane's first and second goals and was involved in the winner, but he nearly negated those plays with two blunders that gave the Kings life. He was in the box for boarding Jake Muzzin when Anze Kopitar tied the game at two at 3:34 of the third, then it was his unforced icing infraction that forced the faceoff in Chicago's end that led to Mike Richards' game-tying goal with 9.4 seconds remaining in regulation. Those are the type of mental errors that could be deadly against the Bruins.
• First things first, of course, but it's officially time to throw Corey Crawford into the mix for Team Canada at Sochi. I'll admit I questioned his ability to carry this team when the season began. All he's done since then is make me and other doubters look silly. He's gotten stronger with each passing series in the postseason and enters the Finals as Chicago's leading Conn Smythe candidate. If he finishes the task at hand -- and even if he doesn't -- someone needs to set aside a Canadian No. 50 jersey.
It was interesting to watch Crawford's game evolve as this one dragged on. Early in the contest, he was able to square up to the shooter, which resulted in almost every shot hitting him right in the chest. But as he tired a bit in OT, it was his glove hand that saved the game time and again. A pair of late stops on Williams and Jake Muzzin? Absolute larceny.
• Yes, the Hawks perpetuated the worst tradition in playoff hockey: Not touching the conference championship trophy. We get it, it's not the hardware you're aiming for, but winning three rounds is still an achievement worth celebrating. And as the Toronto Star's Damien Cox pointed out tonight, 50 percent of the teams who don't hoist it end up losing in the Cup Finals, so...
• If not for Kane's heroics, the story of this game might have Kopitar, who responded in the face of elimination with his finest game in weeks. It still wasn't quite a vintage performance from the Slovenian, but he was fully engaged in the offense, creating turnovers, moving the puck effectively and going hard to the net. It was one of those journeys into the mosh pit that led to his goal. He initially tipped a Jeff Carter point shot into Crawford's chest, then banged home the rebound as soon as it dropped at his feet. His line at the end of the night: 64 percent in the circle, four shots, four hits and and an assist on the game-tying tally to go along with his goal for his first points of the series.
If he'd been that involved throughout the series, the Kings might still be playing. Of course, there may have been extenuating circumstances...
• After the game, Kings coach Darryl Sutter revealed that 3-4 guys were "gametime decisions" from Game 6 of the San Jose series on, according to NHL.com's Corey Masisak. That number was probably conservative. Jarret Stoll (concussion) was one. He was sharp tonight, winning 57 percent of his draws, including the critical offensive zone faceoff that set up the game-tying goal. Williams was another. He suffered a separated shoulder on a punishing hit from Brad Stuart in the San Jose series. Dustin Brown, who never looked comfortable in this series, suffered a knee injury against the Sharks. And then there's Richards, who missed the past three games with a suspected concussion, but returned for tonight's must-win game to center the fourth line. Probably not the smartest move of his career, but he had a doctor's clearance to participate. And he was really good. He took a licking (including one nasty hit from Andrew Shaw), played with an edge and was a factor right up until he made a devious tip of Kopitar's shot from the half-wall to tie the game up in the dying seconds.
There's bound to be more names of the skating wounded revealed in the next few days. Both of their earlier series against St. Louis and San Jose were brutally punishing affairs that exacted a toll from both sides. The Kings won those two battles, but ultimately lost the war to defend the Cup because they paid too high a price along the way. The Hawks, who traveled a much less demanding path in knocking off Minnesota and Detroit, were far healthier. That may have been the difference in the series.
• If not that, then it was the goaltending. In the two previous rounds, the Kings rode Quick hard, relying on him to win games while their offense struggled to score a tick over two goals per night. He delivered by making the two or three key stops he needed to make each game, the stops that snuffed out any hope of a comeback and reminded the other guys that this wasn't their night and tomorrow didn't look too promising either. Against the Hawks, though, he was the victim, not the assassin of dreams. Take tonight, and the two soft goals he allowed in the first five minutes that all but derailed L.A.'s hopes. The 60-footer that beat him five-hole for the opener? Never would have gone in in Duncan Keith had been wearing blue or teal. ECHL stoppers get that one. But the Blackhawks climbed into his head and made themselves comfortable all season, just as surely as he reduced the Blues and the Sharks to stone-handed second guessers. He was average, at best. And these Kings weren't capable of winning with average goaltending.