By Allan Muir
It was the moment that made The Moment possible.
Countering a failed attack by the Kings, three Blackhawks roared into the Los Angeles zone at warp speed with only Alec Martinez between them and goaltender Jonathan Quick. The defender backed in, found the perfect spot and then flawlessly timed a dive to break up a pass attempt.
A smart play at any time. In overtime of Game 7 of the Western Conference finals, it was the quiet turning point.
Mere moments later, Martinez minted himself as the Stephane Matteau for a generation of Southern California hockey fans when his point shot eluded Chicago's Corey Crawford, clinching a 5-4 win that knocked out the defending champion Blackhawks and sent L.A. to the Stanley Cup finals for the second time in three seasons.
The Kings will face the Rangers in the series, which starts Wednesday at Staples Center.
Stanley Cup Final schedule: Dates, times, TV
On the winning goal, Martinez took a pass from Justin Williams just inside the blue line, found a lane and sent a harmless-looking wrister toward the net. The puck deflected off the arm of Blackhawks defenseman Nick Leddy and wobbled just over the shoulder of a helpless Crawford at 5:47 of the extra frame.
"I didn't really see it go in," Martinez said. "I know it went off a couple bodies. I just tried to get it through and fortunately it went in."
The goal provided a nearly perfect ending to a series that's destined to be remembered as one of the best of the modern era, a seven-game showdown between two pedigreed franchises at the height of their powers, filled with goals o' plenty, dramatic momentum shifts and bravura performances from some of the game's top stars.
With the victory, L.A. moved to 7-0 in elimination games this spring and became the first team in NHL history to win three Game 7s on the road in a single playoff season.
Kings-Blackhawks Game 7 recap | Box score | Hamilton: Kings seek exalted status
Here are six more reasons why the Kings are headed back to the Final for the second time in three years:
A missed call: For all the praise heaped on Chicago's Patrick Kane after two magnificent games, it was Jeff Carter who was the dominant offensive force in the series. With two kids (Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli) in tow, he got on the board in six of seven games and rang up 11 points (five goals, six assists), including with a miraculous bit of hand-eye coordination on a goal on Sunday night that (barely) survived video review and got the stumbling Kings on the board late in the first period. On that one, Dustin Brown counterattacked off a Blackhawks turnover, gained the zone and fired the puck at the net. Seemed like an easy play, but Crawford sent the rebound straight up. Carter, crashing the net, batted it out of mid-air and into the goal. The NHL's war room declared it a good tally upon review, but they might not have had the best angle at their disposal. A few minutes after the call, CBC showed an image that proved Carter's stick was above the crossbar -- the threshold for legal contact -- and could have been waved off. In a game highlighted by crazy bounces, that one went L.A.'s way ... and changed the course of the contest.
Tyler Toffoli: His speed, quick hands and impeccable senses of timing and positioning have the 20-year-old on the verge of stardom. He was Johnny-on-the-spot midway through the second period in Game 7, graciously accepting the rebound of a shot that was blocked by Michal Handzus at the side of Chicago's net and depositing it into a gaping hole to tie the game at three. But his real contribution is likely to be forgotten. Replays showed Toffoli's butterfly kiss of a tip on Martinez's game-winner from the point, but he told CBC's Cassie Campbell that he didn't touch it. The official scorer won't argue with that, barring incontrovertible video evidence, so the moment in history belongs to Martinez, a player who was crushed by his failure to bury a wraparound attempt in Game 6. Don't think for a moment that the previous game wasn't on Toffoli's mind when he talked to Campbell.
Justin Williams: The official time of the winner was 5:47 of OT, but the burn-in clock on my video monitor read 14:14. Appropriate, considering the play that Mr. Game 7 made to set it up. It was Williams (uniform number 14), who got the puck in deep, won a battle along the end boards and found Martinez open at the point for the winner, earning his second point of the game. He'd tied it up at two late in the first period by capitalizing on a poor block decision by Michal Rozsival. In all, Williams now has a league-record 14 points in seven career Game 7 appearances. It says all you need to know about his ability to live up to the moment in a way no other player in NHL history ever has.
Marian Gaborik: At this point, it doesn't matter if Matt Frattin matures into the next Jarome Iginla, or if the two draft picks who went with him to the Blue Jackets become first liners. Considering what Gaborik has meant to the King, L.A. GM Dean Lombardi isn't likely to ever feel that he got the worst part of that deal. The sniper leads the playoffs with 12 goals, tying a franchise record, after sending the game to OT by scoring at 12:43 of the third. It won't go down as the prettiest tally of his career, but it was a perfect illustration of how effective he's been. Gaborik drove the net, slipping behind Marian Hossa and Niklas Hjalmarsson. When Crawford stopped Dustin Brown's initial attempt from the point, Gaborik was in alone just outside the crease to bat home the rebound for the second-most important goal scored by L.A. in these playoffs. "He had a heck of a game tonight," Williams said. "He had a lot of shots, was tenacious around the net. Just having a game-breaker on our team like that really allowed us to tie the game and ultimately win. Gabby has been such a huge piece of this puzzle so far. He wants that Cup just as bad as we do."
Jonathan Quick: His wasn't the sort of performance that will make anyone forget 2012, when he won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP. From the third period of Game 6 through the first period of Game 7, Quick was beaten on five of nine shots. On Sunday night, he was fooled by a bank shot from behind the goal line off the stick of Saad that slipped past him at 5:06 of the first period. Then he coughed up a gut punch of a goal to Patrick Sharp just 12 seconds after Williams had tied the game at two at 17:22. It had the makings of a nightmare finish, but then Quick he did exactly what the greatest goalies in history have always done: allow one less goal than the other guy. There were several solid stops among the 37 that Quick made on the night, but none was better than the one that preserved the tie in the dying seconds. It took a lightning sharp read, and quick legs, to stone Andrew Shaw with a pad save with just 5.3 seconds remaining on the clock. Quick's ability to get down into the splits and take away the bottom portion of the net made all the difference on that one, arguably his most important stop yet in these playoffs.
The Blackhawks' bumbling lead retention skills: For Chicago, these playoffs were like a variation of that classic Seinfeld bit: The Blackhawks know how to take a lead ... they just didn't know how to hold a lead. Damien Cox of the Toronto Star counted 18 blown leads by Chicago in these playoffs, including three in Game 7. It makes it tough to defend a title when you're constantly giving the opposition an extra swing or two to knock you out. The two-goal margin that the Hawks gave up late in the first period of Game 7 was their third such blown lead of the series, and the second one that eventually ended in a loss.
Crawford will take his share of the heat, but the blame belongs to the team and its lack of commitment to defense. Soft coverage in the zone led directly to three of L.A.'s goals last night and too many times throughout the series Kings were allowed to park directly in front of the goalie, restricting his vision and standing untouched as they hacked away at rebounds.
The Hawks may boast one of the best blue lines in the league, but as a group they failed to protect the castle. And that cost them this series.