The Chicago Blackhawks can be awfully good when they want to be. Saturday night, the Kings were coming off a thrilling and dominating win in Chicago. They’d laid into the Hawks to the tune of 6-2, and they’d been faster, stronger, and better in winning that way. Then they came out that same way on Saturday night. Then Chicago took the game back over. Then they just stopped playing, letting the Kings get the win and gain a 2-1 advantage in the series.
Is that so surprising? Of course the Kings were going to buzz having evened the series, ruined the home ice advantage by winning away, and being that they were once more at home. But why did the Hawks simply cave in to the LA way of playing?
First, some description to set up the point. The very first shift of game three of their Western Conference Final showed LA’s resolve. Kopitar, Gaborik, and Brown went down, got Crawford to his knees, and saw him spin awkwardly around while the puck squirted out into the corner to a whistle.
Next shift, the line on (not line two—Sutter doesn’t like to label them), which was Richards, Williams, and King, made a cross-ice pass, Williams, to King, right in the slot. They didn’t score. But it looked like the Kings were rolling.
They got the benefit of a dumb penalty by Michal Handzus, who closed his hand(zus) on the puck in the offensive zone. Things looked to be going their way. But on the power play, Toews took the puck down the left side. Now watch this: the Kings had been hard on defense even in the early going, always having a guy where a Blackhawks player was. And they did in this case. Two, in fact, stacked up diagonally between Toews and the net. But he was smarter than they. He waited, faded across the slot to his right, and did a fake shot/shot combination that was so fast Quick couldn’t keep up with it. It went in long side, shorthanded.
All was not immediately lost, as on that power play, the Kings scored, Voynov moving in from the high left slot, and waited, reloaded, and fired. It went past Crawford on his left side, and it looked like not a great goal. Not a horrible one, either, but he had a lane to see it.
So it was 1-1, then 2-1 Chicago when Toews, who appeared determined to take over the game, scored at 13:19. He, Hossa, and Brian Bickell actually worked together to smother the Kings, move the puck around their zone and get it low, dig it out from the wall, and put it in the net almost like there was no defense there.
But Toews didn’t keep it up, and Patrick Kane was ineffective all night, and so LA slowly took over, then really took over for good in period three. They were so convincing that the Chicago coach said afterwards, “Forty minutes of the game were the same” as in game two. Then, too, Chicago sustained the action through two (or all but two minutes of two, in game two). But then they just flopped. Quenneville added, “They’ve had two big third periods on us, and that’s the difference in us being down 2-1.”
Toews said after, “Clearly they want it badly and are playing really hard. For us, I think it’s just a matter of continuing that effort that we started with in the first period.” If you take out the “we” and replace it with “I,” you’d have a statement that’s closer to the truth. His coach said that his work ethic is contagious but that all of the Blackhawks need to work as hard as that.
So why were the Kings so good? This might surprise you. Their depth player, Kyle Clifford, was a difference-maker. He played only 9:20 on a line with Stoll and Lewis, but he seemed to be everywhere. He carried the puck for much of the time he was on the ice, forcing it down deep in the Chicago end. If he ran out of talent a couple of times, such as in period three when he took it across the Chicago slot and held it far too long, getting forced to the corner, then at the least you can say that when you’re playing good defense, you’re playing good offense, and holding the puck in the other guy’s end is good offense.
Clifford had one shot and one hit, but his game might have been the best he’s had in his NHL career. The Kings’ second goal, though he was not on the ice, should have a little bit of his name attached to it. Why? He and Lewis showed the Hawks how pressure works, keeping the puck in their end. Clifford passed it to Lewis, who could not get a handle. Even on the second try he missed. But the pressure got into Chicago’s head, and they allowed the Carter line to get into the zone in exactly the same way on the next shift, and it produced a goal.
LA managed to exploit the weaknesses that Chicago portrayed. The two middle goals, Carter’s just mentioned and that of Toffoli just after, both took advantage of the same Chicago mistake. Carter got himself positioned at the edge of the crease between two defenders, and slammed a puck home. Toffoli got the puck as it slid between two, took it to the net, deked, and slid it under Crawford’s left leg. Not the same goal, but exploiting the same kind of gap. There aren’t a ton of mistakes in the games of either of these teams, but LA pounced on Chicago’s.
They did the hard, dangerous stuff like it was routine. Sutter said after the game, “Screens, tips, and rebounds are still the best way to score goals,” and the Kings did that. Their fourth goal, by Doughty, had Dwight King right in front, waving at it to distract Crawford.
The Kings also slowed down the speedy Chicago players, Toews and Kane. Dustin Brown commented on how they had played Toews hard in the neutral zone. “Grabbing him, making it hard, grinding him through the neutral zone. It helps not only our defensemen, but it allows a couple of other guys to get back in the play before he can do what he does.” Doughty said that Kane likes to build up speed doing fancy stuff in the center of the ice, and that the Kings’ strategy was to shut him down before he got started. He did get three shots, but he didn’t seem to have the puck much. He wasn’t all that noticeable in any zone.
Drew Doughty said that they were “trying to frustrate them, give them no room, be physical on Kane and Sharp” in response to a question about the latter.
The Kings won because they’re getting good netminding, though it didn’t have to be great this night. Quick had 27 shots on him. The three goals were good ones, but he also made enough saves. None were super-spectacular, but he was there when he needed to be, including taking some pucks up high off the chest.
And finally, the LA Kings shut down the Blackhawks because they believe they’re the better team. Drew Doughty said after the game, “We’re not here to win a few games. Our ultimate goal is to win the Stanley Cup. We’ve got a lot of obstacles before that happens. Chicago’s a good team and they’re not going to go away easy. We’re only up 2-1.”
Which means, “We think they’re going away easier than we thought, and we are the ones up 2-1, after all.”
On the other side, it is distinctly seeming like Chicago is starting not to believe. Duncan Keith looked downcast in his dressing stall as he commented on the lack of a power play goal and other matters. “With LA, they got some young guys that have speed and skill . . . . They work hard. They skate hard, and I think they’re a little bit quicker than last year. We just have to move the puck and play our game.” He finished, “We need everybody if we’re going to beat this team,” not just the captain, Toews.
They’ll get their chance again Monday, 6pm local time.
Carter has ten points in the last four games, and seven in the last two.
Youngster Tanner Pearson has points in four straight games, with one goal and four assists.
Toffoli also has points in four straight on three goals and one assist.
Forget not being able to score—the Kings have outscored their opponents 48-28 during the last 14 games.
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