CHICAGO – When Darryl Sutter doesn't say a lot during a game break, the Los Angeles Kings are not particularly unnerved. By now, they well know that their coach is a man of few syllables, and deliberate ones at that. It's when Sutter says nearly nothing that they know that things are really bad. When he glares around the room and mumbles only brief non-sequitirs, often about someone on the other side being the greatest player in the world, that is the nearly silent alarm, the cue for the Kings to fill in the blanks and get going.
“When Darryl doesn't come in and say too much, that means he's mad at us,” defenseman Drew Doughty said. “And we need to do something about it.”
So it was during the second intermission of Game 2 at the United Center on Wednesday that the Kings decided to have a say in how their Western Conference Final series would go. For nearly five full periods, the Chicago Blackhawks had been able to do whatever they needed in order to set the tone. So after a silent treatment by their coach, the Kings, trailing 1-0 in the series and 2-1 in the game, discussed the statement they could make. The result was five third-period goals that tied a franchise postseason record and resulted in a 6-2 win that evened the series and recalibrated how this club from Los Angeles views itself.
In the conference final a year ago, the Blackhawks flicked the Kings aside in five games. During the 2013-14 regular season, Chicago won all three meetings. Then came a Game 1 this week in which L.A.'s prolific postseason offense sputtered in a 3-1 loss. That one was followed by the Blackhawks snaring a 2-0 lead in Game 2 as they streaked up the ice with counterattacks and transition opportunities while the Kings nearly stood by helplessly. The only pushback that L.A. could muster was of the literal variety: Center Jarret Stoll tussled with Chicago star Patrick Kane along the boards, with Stoll dislodging Kane's helmet but not the grin on his face as the Blackhawks winger skated away.
That intermission before the third period on Wednesday was effectively the Kings' last chance to change how the opposition looked at them and how they looked at themselves. “It was kind of an enough is enough attitude – we have to beat this team,” Stoll said. “We all know what the record has been the last two years, especially in this building. That was kind of what we talked about and we all knew we had better. We have a good team. We don't want to worry about them too much. We want to worry about our own game and our own style. We know we can win. That's the bottom line. Yeah, they've got a good team. But we feel we do, too.”
Some confidence percolated in the Kings after a couple of big moments during the second period. Goaltender Jonathan Quick stoned Chicago's Brent Seabrook on a 2-on-1 rush with about seven minutes left in the frame, staving off what would have been a deflating three-goal deficit. Then winger Justin Williams scored with a little less than two minutes left to stoke the momentum some more. But that was merely their fingernails digging into the cliff's edge as the Kings dangled. They didn't have a substantial hold on where they truly stood against the reigning champs until they seized one, which neatly dovetailed with the Blackhawks losing their grip on the game.
Two early third-period Chicago penalties produced two Kings power-play scores, their 12th and 13th of the postseason, making it three goals in less than six minutes of game time and a 3-2 lead. But L.A.'s next score was the most emblematic of the dizzying change in momentum: On a rush up the ice, Kings center Jeff Carter flung a shot on goal from the face-off circle. Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford denied it, and the puck was deflected high in the air. Crawford watched it. So did Chicago defensemen Michal Rozsival and Nick Leddy while L.A.'s Tyler Toffoli raced in to receive a pass and bury a shot past Crawford for a 4-2 lead.
“I don't know if they thought it hit the netting above the glass or what,” said Carter, who opened the third-period scoring and ended up with a hat trick. “Seemed like everybody just stopped. There was no whistle. So you play until they blow it.”
It seemed as if Chicago heard a factory whistle and summarily punched out of Game 2 with a good 22 minutes left to play. The Blackhawks had thoroughly outskated the Kings early, drawing three holding or hooking penalties. Defensemen activated Chicago's offense with long outlet passes that led to goals by Leddy and Ben Smith. Chicago played to its strengths, finding open ice and room to operate everywhere. Then the Hawks stopped and their only decent scoring chance in the final period was a Marian Hossa shot that ringed off the crossbar with about eight minutes left and the Kings pulling away.
“I really liked how we played for 38 minutes,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “We did everything we were looking to do. The way it turned on a dime like that – I don't know if we've seen a game like that all year where we're doing everything all right and all of a sudden it was a disaster.”
It is not quite yet a disaster of a larger scope, not for a team that was down two-games-to-none in the first round against the St. Louis Blues and came back to win. But it was the first postseason home loss for the Blackhawks, and the Kings' first-ever playoff win in this city, as well as a jolt of confidence for a weary team that had been reeling against Chicago for two years' running.
A Western Conference final that seemed en route to a rout is now dead even and it remains to be seen if the Blackhawks have stumbled into the hole that Los Angeles talked its way out of on Wednesday night.
"This is a huge game for our psyche, kind of like slaying the mythical dragon," Kings captain Dustin Brown said. "We've been dominated by this team for the past couple years. We kind of hit the reset button."
The Blackhawks and Kings will meet in Game 3 in Los Angeles at 8 p.m ET on Saturday night (NBC CBC, RDS).