Let’s be totally honest–just about everyone thought that the Los Angeles Kings would lose Game 5 of the Western Conference Final on Wednesday night in Chicago against the Blackhawks. After the Blackhawks took a 3-1 lead barely 11 minutes into the 1st period and the Kings looked completely out of sorts, and fairly uninterested, that expectation appeared to be coming to fruition. But, just as the Kings have shown time and time again–this is one resilient bunch. Three unanswered goals later, the Kings had a 4-3 lead heading into the 3rd period, and everyone knows that the Kings don’t blow leads they carry into the 3rd period, right? Well…the Blackhawks are also a resilient bunch, and they weren’t about to fold in a potential elimination game at home–they tied the game early in the 3rd period and the game ended up in overtime.
What happened over the following 20 minutes of play was, at least according to many fans and hockey observers (including yours truly), the best full period of overtime hockey played in recent Stanley Cup playoff history. Unfortunately for the Kings, they couldn’t make a spectacular play or get a lucky bounce to help put the Blackhawks away for good…and only two minutes into the second overtime period, the game was over. The Blackhawks had staved off elimination.
Despite the fact that the Kings nearly won–and probably should have won–the game, the post-game narrative has been that ‘the Kings got smoked’ and ‘the Kings are about to blow a 3-1 series lead’. First of all, there’s no doubt that the Kings allowed the Blackhawks to dictate the pace of play and the Kings never want to play a fast-paced, back-and-forth, high-scoring game. There’s also no doubt that the Kings would be foolish to take the Blackhawks lightly until they are officially eliminated. That being said, the Kings are still ahead in the series 3-2, and are well aware of the task at hand. “We know we can’t let it go to Game 7,” Drew Doughty said on Thursday. “No matter what, this game has to be ours.”
Doughty played 39 minutes and 4 seconds–the most ice time he’s ever had in an NHL game. But a day after Game 5, Doughty was quick to point out that: “Your heart doesn’t get tired.” He should know–already during their current playoff run, he’s led the Kings back from 3-0 and 3-2 series deficits, with both Game 7s on the road, against tough opponents.
How exactly did the Kings get away from their style of play in Game 5 and allow the Blackhawks to run them ragged for more than 80 minutes? Chicago Head Coach Joel Quenneville made another round of lineup adjustments to spark his team, and the Blackhawks had immediate success teaming Brandon Saad, Patrick Kane, and Andrew Shaw on a new line. Kane, quiet for much of the series, contributed four assists, and the three combined for nine points and a +10 plus/minus rating.
Coincidentally, the New York Rangers lost in Montreal in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final 7-4 by letting the Canadiens dictate the pace of play. They went back home to New York on Thursday, got back to their style of play, and won Game 6 1-0, with star goalie Henrik Lundquist leading the way.
Hopefully, the Kings were paying attention on their off day, because they will almost certainly lose Game 6 if they can’t limit the Blackhawks to two goals or less. Jonathan Quick will have to be sharp from start to finish, and the Kings will need to use their ‘physicality’ advantage to slow the Blackhawks down. The Kings have four players in the top six for overall hits during the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs–Dustin Brown has the most hits with 99, followed by Jarret Stoll with 73, Slava Voynov is fifth with 61 hits, and Trevor Lewis is sixth with 58 hits. In all, the Kings have EIGHT players in the top 18, while the Blackhawks have only ONE. While the Kings also have the top three players with most points during the playoffs, they cannot engage the Blackhawks in a track meet.
As we pointed out in our Games 3 and 4 preview, the Blackhawks have been a completely different team on the road during the playoffs. After Games 3 and 4, the Blackhawks were only 2-6 on the road, and goalie Corey Crawford has a 2.91 goals against average and .895 save percentage during those eight games. The Blackhawks’ power play unit, which has been exceptional at home, is atrocious on the road. Entering this series, Chicago had only converted 5.9% of power plays on the road. The Blackhawks then proceeded to go 0/7 in Games 3 and 4, combined. The Kings have never lost a playoff series in which they’ve held a 3-1 lead, and they’re 8-1 in series in which they’ve held a 3-2 lead. They have Game 6 at home against a team that has been awful–frankly–on the road. If the Kings hope to return to the Stanley Cup Final and win back their Cup–they need to win Game 6. While winning THREE Game 7s on the road on their way to the Final would make for a great story, it’s never a good idea to tempt fate that many times in one playoff run.