By Allan Muir
The Chicago Blackhawks got the start they wanted on Monday night. A buzzy opening shift from a newly constructed top line featuring Jonathan Toews with Patrick Kane. A quality bid from Marian Hossa. Even a pair of chances with the extra man before the game was seven minutes old.
And then it all went wrong.
Chicago's sputtering power play failed again. And again. Momentum disappeared. And that was just the start of a disastrous special teams performance that ended with a 5-2 loss that pushed the defending Stanley Cup champs to the brink of elimination in the Western Conference Final.
Coach Joel Quenneville's emphasized to the media the importance of the power play and penalty kill coming into this pivotal contest, but his team seems to have missed the message. It ended the night 0-for-3 with the extra man, generating just three shots in the process.
But as bad as Chicago has been on the power play--the Hawks are now 1-for-24 on the road this postseason--it's their shorthanded work that's costing them this series. The Kings had two chances of their own with the extra man in the first period. Jake Muzzin connected at the nine minute mark, and after Marian Gaborik scored at even strength a little more than two minutes later, Dustin Brown tallied on the power play at 15:56 to stake L.A. to a 3-0 first lead it would not relinquish.
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Hard to believe that this, of all things, could be Chicago's downfall. Through Game 1 of the Western final, the Blackhawks were 44-for-48 on the penalty kill. Since then, they've allowed five goals on just 10 chances.
"Our special teams have been the strength of our team [all year]," Quenneville said. "Penalty killing might have been the reason why we won [our first two] series. Right now they're going in against us. We got to shore up that area. Our power play production has been off a little bit. I think we got to make sure, whether we're scoring or not, to sustain and gather momentum when the power play's out there."
Quenneville's wrong there. Momentum sounds great, but it won't enough to extend this series. Chicago's special teams need to take care of business...or the Hawks' season could end on Wednesday night.
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Some observations on tonight's win by the Kings:
• With every passing game it becomes obvious how much better this Los Angeles team is than the one that captured the Stanley Cup in 2012. The core of that roster is intact, but this group has more depth and quick-strike potential. Gaborik, who scored his league-leading 10th goal of the playoffs, gives the Kings a gamebreaker on the first line. Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson, who scored his first of the series into an empty net tonight, combines with Jeff Carter to form a line that can light it up or defend a lead in the closing minutes. With the team getting healthier (defenseman Robyn Regehr skated in practice today) and goalie Jonathan Quick in top form, it feels like a better, more complete group.
Of course, these Kings are not competing against their own legacy. "You try not to look back, really," Quick said. "But obviously the one similarity is we’ve been able to win as many games as we have. We put ourselves in a position where we have an opportunity to win a game to go to the finals. Our team two years ago was able to that. We were able to do that right now. That doesn’t mean anything as far as anything is going to be handed to us. We’ve got a lot to do to be able to earn that [next] win."
The trick now for a team that's stared down its own possible elimination six times is to knock out the champs. "Character comes out a lot more when your backs are against the wall and it’s win or go home," said Justin Williams. "That’s why the games get harder every game you win. Going into Game 5 we’re obviously going to try our best to finish it off because we know we’re going to have as desperate a team as theirs."
• No one's going to honor Quick with a parade after this 22-save effort, but his performance tonight quietly reinforced his reputation as the NHL's best big-game goalie. It's not about stealing games as much as it is his knack for coming up with the big stop exactly when the Kings need it. His early glove save on Hossa slowed an early Chicago push and his brilliant pad stop on Bryan Bickell midway through the third helped kill the Blackhawks' newfound momentum. And when the Hawks finally discovered their sense of urgency late in that period after Bickell cut L.A.'s lead to 4-2, he shut the door. That's the sort of timely goaltending that got the Kings this far...and could take them all the way.
• This was one of those nights when Corsi failed to accurately capture the impact of Los Angeles' top defense pair. Drew Doughty came in at 38.5 percent, but was arguably the best player on the ice as he continues to build his case for the Conn Smythe. Smart, aggressive without the puck and dynamic with it, he keyed the victory...but he couldn't have done it without a terrific effort from his partner Muzzin (just 34.4 percent). His opening goal will generate some buzz, but don't forget that it was his sneaky push of Hossa into Quick's crease that sent the Hawk to the box for interference and created the power play that Muzzin eventually scored on. He was credited with three blocks for the night, but his stick broke up at least twice as many passing attempts by Chicago and he kept Kane bottled up all night. Muzzin's Second Star of the Game nod was well deserved.
• Corey Crawford's going to take some heat after allowing at least four goals for the seventh time in 17 games this postseason, but you can't blame Chicago's keeper for this one. The real problem was a defense that left him to find the puck through a maze of bodies all night.
How bad was it? Black Friday shoppers don't spend as much time standing around as Brent Seabrook did tonight. The veteran allowed Jeff Carter to screen Crawford on Muzzin's opening goal. He was slow coming out of the corner and failed to tie up Gaborik on the second tally. Then he left Brown to stand unmolested in the crease to score L.A.'s third goal. It was such an uncharacteristically poor effort that you have to wonder if Seabrook is playing through a serious injury. There's just no battle in his game right now.
He wasn't alone, of course. Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson gave Williams and Dwight King plenty of breathing room on Drew Doughty's dagger midway through the second, and Duncan Keith was sloppy on the turnover in the corner that led to Gaborik's goal.
They won't make it back to Los Angeles for a Game 6 if they don't address their commitment, or lack thereof, on Wednesday night.
• Kane after the game: "We were in the same position last year. Why can't we do it again?" He's right, of course. The Kings don't get anything for winning three games and the Hawks climbed out of a 3-1 hole against Detroit in the second round just last year.
Anything can happen...but is there any reason to believe it will?
Kane picked up an assist tonight on Bickell's goal--his first point in the series--but was a non-factor again. He skated with Toews much of the night, so there's no blaming the leaden feet of Michal Handzus like in the first three games. This one's all on Kane, on his perimeter play, his lack of battle, his two meaningless shots on net. We all know that he can pounce on the smallest mistake and turn it into a scoring chance. The problem is the Kings aren't leaving him any crumbs...and he's not doing enough to create his own opportunities.
MUIR: Kane ominously quiet
Toews? After a gritty solo performance in Chicago's Game 3 loss, he was a step behind the play all night. He failed to land a shot on net--he now has just five in the entire series--and was a miserable 7-of-21 on the draw. He looked like a banged up player.
Patrick Sharp? Quenneville tried a variety of linemates to force his legs to move and get him involved in the offense, but nothing's working. Hossa? He was Chicago's most dangerous player tonight, but his 12.8 career shooting percentage is down to a miserable 3.3 percent in these playoffs. He's getting pucks to the net, but nothing's going in.
We've already covered the team's defensive shortcomings so it's fair to ask this question: Other than having done it before, is there any reason to believe these 'Hawks can come back in this series?