By Allan Muir
Stan Bowman is widely regarded as one of the top minds in the game, but it was no surprise that his name wasn't called when the NHL announced the general manager of the year finalists on Friday.
For all the marvelous work he's done building his Chicago Blackhawks, Bowman failed to fill one gaping hole in his lineup. And right now it is killing his team.
For the second game in a row Jeff Carter dominated Michal Handzus in the battle of second-line centers, giving the Los Angeles Kings the edge they needed to secure a 4-3 victory in Game 3 of the Western Conference Final. The Kings now hold a 2-1 series lead, with Game 4 slated for Monday night at the Staples Center.
Last spring, the Hawks beat the Kings in five games primarily because Los Angeles couldn't ice an effective second line. This year, the skate is on the other foot.
Carter and his linemates Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli are the most dangerous line in hockey right now. They're fast, they're hard on the puck, they go to the right places and they finish their chances. They had five points tonight and already have 15 in this series.
Handzus, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp? They have one meaningless goal and a minus-7 between them.
Blackhawks-Kings Game 3 recap | Box score | Highlights
"We’ve been doing the things that we need to," Carter said when asked about the success of his unit. "Using our speed, getting our pucks behind their D. When we’re physical on their D, we create turnovers. We’ve been bearing down on our chances. That’s what we need to do."
While their names are all over the score sheet, Chicago's second liners are more likely to be found on the side of a milk carton. Kane? He told us he'd figured out how to find space against the Kings, then did it exactly once in this game...and failed to score on that chance. Sharp? He was invisible until deflecting one past Jonathan Quick with less than five seconds left. And Handzus? He was a disaster. Too slow. Too soft. And not a single shot on net.
To be fair, Handzus has some situational value. He can kill penalties and he's decent on the draw (8-of-12 tonight). On a regular shift though, he's been killing the Hawks all postseason.
But Quenneville keeps sending him over the boards. What option does he have? Ben Smith?
The Hawks have one line going right now. No surprise then that it was their captain who got them on the board early. Jonathan Toews swiped the puck from Justin Williams at center ice, raced down the wing then beat Quick shorthanded to give the Hawks a 1-0 lead just 5:26 into the first. After Slava Voynov tied it up on the same man advantage, Toews regained the lead for Chicago with a second-effort chance on a rebound down low at 13:19.
It was right after that second goal that the game was there for the Hawks to claim. Recognizing the opportunity, Joel Quenneville threw Toews' line right back on the ice. They swarmed the Kings end, planted deep roots in the crease, buzzed around Quick...but they couldn't put it behind him.
They had one chance, though. One glorious chance. It was Toews, of course, feeding Marian Hossa who found a dead spot for himself in the left circle. The winger had a lane and got off a terrific shot.
But Quick denied him, just as he shut down Brent Seabrook on that two-on-one rush in Game 2.
And just like that, the moment was gone.
It wasn't long before Los Angeles that seized the game.
Carter got the Kings back on even footing 8:08 into the second off a crisp feed from Pearson. The young winger took advantage of a lucky bounce--Johnny Oduya's clearing attempt struck an official behind the net--and put it on Carter's stick, where it resided for a millisecond before he buried it behind a helpless Corey Crawford.
Toffoli then gave Los Angeles its first lead at 14:19. Willie Mitchell's pass was deflected by Carter directly to Toffoli, who burst through a pair of Chicago defenders and in alone on Crawford. He went backhand/forehand before sliding it under the goalie's left pad for his sixth goal of the postseason.
"That was great," Carter said. "A lot of the goals that we’ve scored have come from them using their speed, tracking down loose pucks, creating turnovers. As soon as [we] do that, [our] instinct is to get the puck right to the net. It’s been working for us."
While That '70s Line was creating, and finishing, chances, Chicago's second unit barely registered a pulse.
"We're trying to frustrate them, give them no room, play them physical," Drew Doughty said. "We know that Kane likes to pick up the puck, kind of be fancy, have a lot of room, gain speed that way. So we’re just trying to limit the ice for him. Play him hard. Same thing with Sharp. We have to play those guys hard. Even though they haven’t done much lately, we know they’re going to have their best game in Game 4."
Which is what you're supposed to say, of course. No matter how ineffective they've been, you can't take talents like Kane and Sharp lightly. But as long as Handzus is slowing them down in transition, they can't gain the zone with possession. That forces them to play dump-and-chase and leads to quick turnovers.
They're out of their comfort zone. And that's why the Hawks are in real trouble.
Chicago proved in the first round that it can battle back a 2-1 series deficit. But the Kings aren't the St. Louis Blues and Quick most definitely is not Ryan Miller.
They won't self destruct. They'll have to be beaten. And for that to happen, Jonathan Toews will need a whole lot more help than he got tonight.
If he doesn't get it, it's on Bowman.