By Brian Hamilton
CHICAGO -- The day started with a story about their goalie spraying a fan in the face with a water bottle, and it ended long after with a trickle of hope for the Chicago Blackhawks. An exasperating 5-4 double-overtime win in Game 5 against the Los Angeles Kings, and finally, the defending Stanley Cup champions had outwilled the team that for three games had refused to be conquered. The Blackhawks found one more answer than the team with a seemingly bottomless trove of them. They survived 80-plus minutes of all-out, two-way assault, including a breathless first overtime that their coach called the best he's ever seen. The Blackhawks, faced with another elimination tilt in Los Angeles on Friday, may yet make it out of the Western Conference Finals, but they made it out of the United Center alive, down three games to two and cautiously optimistic that they've discovered a way back into the series.
“It's a special group,” Chicago winger Patrick Kane said, after his offensive wizardry returned just in time to prolong Chicago's season and defense of the Stanley Cup. “I think we know that in the locker room. Seems like in a lot of these games, we find ways to win, whether we should or not.”
That the Blackhawks are still vulnerable and the Kings have carried the the play overall for five games are both mostly undebatable. A raucous start by the home team in front of more than 21,000 fans on Wednesday night ultimately devolved into Chicago's fourth blown two-goal lead of the postseason, the most by any team in the playoffs, and the Hawks trailed by one at the start of the the third period. Though the end felt like a revival, Game 5 showcased two well-matched squads that were playing at the same level in the same game for maybe the first time in the series, all while hurling a total of 99 shots at each other. No burgeoning weaknesses were exposed either way.
Kings-Blackhawks Game 5 recap | Box score | Highlights
The situation did, however, present the necessity that inspired some Blackhawks reinvention. The result allowed them to believe that they found what had been lost in their three-game-long meltdown. The reconfigured second line of Kane, Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw was sheer brilliance. Kane posted four assists after recording one point in the first four games of the series. Saad was uncaged, his 6-foot-1, 202-pound frame a mobile artillery unit as he recorded a goal, two assists and three takeaways. Shaw anchored it all with two assists, eight hits and a gutty shake-off of an apparent leg injury late in regulation. Combined, the trio was plus-10 on the night.
They were so dominant that Hawks coach Joel Quenneville appeared to be intent on riding them until they were three piles of dust on skate blades.
“They were excellent, outstanding,” Quenneville said. “They all had huge games. Might have been a discovery.”
It wasn't the only one. Potentially, anyway. Quenneville remixed his defensive pairings -- coincidentally having done the exact same thing while down three games to one against Detroit in the conference semifinals a year ago -- and while there was nothing close to a lockdown of the Kings' potent offense, Chicago got early goals from blueliners Brent Seabrook and Johnny Oduya. The finishing touch was applied in overtime by one of the most besieged personalities on the roster: 37-year-old Michal Handzus, who had been increasingly incapable of reprising his magic act of filling the team's glaring void at No. 2 center. He had two points and posted a minus-6 rating before Wednesday, his ice time reduced to less than five minutes in Game 4. So maybe that's why he was completely ignored after being thrown out for half a shift with Saad and Kane in the second overtime, gliding toward the net and taking a neat feed from Saad for the backhand winner 2:04 in.
The Blackhawks live on thanks to, of all people, the guy who couldn't contain a smile when he was told that Saad thought he had good speed going to the net. “I think he slowed down, so maybe it looked like it,” Handzus cracked. “I was surprised, too, that I got open like that. But [Saad] had a great heads-up play, he kind of waited, waited, brought two guys to him and then made a great pass.”
In a celebratory mob scene along the boards and in the stands, there was relief for one night, even if no one saw it coming.
“There's going to be a hero in here, we kept saying,” Saad said. “Luckily, we got one.”
How long the luck lasts is a legitimate question.
“Damn near got it,” Kings coach Darryl Sutter said afterward, and he was right. Los Angeles' resolve came alive with three straight goals that lifted the Kings out of a 3-1 hole in the first period. The first overtime was a phenomenon that no one will soon forget, a peak-intensity blur that saw play continue without a whistle for a nearly eight-minute span. "Wow," thought Quenneville when a stoppage finally came, relieved that the Kings didn't find a way to end his club's season as they sped up and down the ice trading chances. At around the nine-minute mark, LA's Anze Kopitar had a great chance but sent his shot into the side of Chicago's net, coming within inches of reaching the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in three seasons.
“We have to go back to L.A. and reset and reload,” Kings captain Dustin Brown said. “We have another chance on Friday.”
That they do. The Blackhawks gamely tried to assert that the pressure was on the Kings to finish things off on Wednesday. In truth, Game 5 was a stress test that only Chicago needed to pass. But there indeed will be a measure of desperation for Los Angeles in Game 6 to avoid a possible return trip for Game 7 at the United Center.
And the defending champs will carry the burden of ensuring that their most memorable spurt on the West Coast won't have come -- allegedly -- from goalie Corey Crawford's water bottle. It was reported early Wednesday that a heckling Staples Center fan took a shot of liquid to the face late in Game 4 and brought the matter to the police, all of which Crawford took no time to discuss after his Game 5 win. “It's over,” the netminder said. “I got nothing to say.”
But for the first time since their ominous breakdown began earlier in the series, the Blackhawks produced a statement effort. No, it might not have been definitive enough to recalibrate the terms of engagement between the teams. Los Angeles damn near got the win, but didn't. Meanwhile, Chicago got superstar play from one of its superstars and most of what it wanted from all its lineup reshuffling, and got confident again as a result.
Trailing by one in the third period and 20 minutes from elimination on Wednesday, the Blackhawks unearthed a couple answers that had eluded them for most of this series.
“Our guys,” Quenneville said, “they find ways.”
It's a start, but there's still a long way to go.
The Blackhawks and Kings will meet in Game 6 in Los Angeles at 9 p.m ET on Friday (NBCSN, CBC, RDS).