There was, Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville agreed, something weirdly surreal about how well his Chicago Blackhawks played for a long time Wednesday night and how badly they lost in the end. The second game of the Western Conference final ended 6-2 for the Los Angeles Kings, and if you weren't watching, you'd think it might have been a mauling, a case of the Kings getting their legs back under them after two days of rest and laying a beating on Chicago.
For most of two periods, the Blackhawks dominated the action, using those sly stretch passes of theirs to create seams in the Kings’ defence and scoring twice by the early stages of the second period. L.A. contributed to their own misfortune, making far too many risky plays, and almost getting burned for a third - Blackhawks' defenceman Brent Seabrook, wide open on a two-on-one break - that would have put the game away for Chicago.
Then, an innocent goal on a harmless play with under two minutes to go in the second period by Justin Williams got the Kings to within one and opened the door for a wildly unexpected five-goal third-period explosion - keyed by two consecutive power-play goals - that turned certain defeat into an unexpected Los Angeles victory.
And with that, ladies and gentlemen, we have a series, tied at a game apiece, with both teams having two days off to ponder what comes next.
The Blackhawks sounded almost shell-shocked in the aftermath of the defeat, Quenneville noting how “the way it turned on a dime like that, I don’t know if we’ve seen a game like that all year, where we’re doing everything right and then all of a sudden, it was a disaster.”
The Kings, of course, have been down this path before in these playoffs. They’re like an unwanted house guest, never quite knowing when to leave the party. The San Jose Sharks had them down three games to zero in the opening round, only to see L.A. engineer a comeback from the ages. The Anaheim Ducks had them on the ropes in the next round, but couldn’t finish them off either, L.A. advancing in seven games again.
And now? The Blackhawks got a taste of those never-say-die Kings.
"I think this is a huge game for our approach, our psyche - kind of like slaying the mythical dragon,” assessed Kings’ captain Dustin Brown. “We've been dominated by this team over the last couple of years. To come in here and get a win in their building with the type of home record they have, I think gives us a boost in confidence."
It was Chicago’s first home loss in these playoffs, after a 7-0 start, and it also marked L.A.’s first-ever playoff victory in Chicago (they’d been 0-7 in franchise history).
It was two defencemen who played their junior hockey against each other in southern Ontario – and are now paired up in the NHL – who led the third-period turnaround for Los Angeles. Continuing to build on his impressive resume in big games, Drew Doughty set up the tying goal, Jeff Carter tipping in his shot. Then Doughty’s partner Jake Muzzin scored the go-ahead goal, a rising shot that went over goaltender Corey Crawford’s shoulder, stunning the crowd at the United Center, which had been ready to celebrate yet another Chicago win.
The Blackhawks had spent most of the past two days between games singing Crawford’s praises – and noting how well he’d played for them at different times in these playoffs, even if his reputation around the NHL doesn’t necessarily support that.
But Crawford had a rough outing – his toughest since the first two games of the first round against the St. Louis Blues – and presumably, one of the story lines will be how well he can rebound from this loss.
Presumably, they will focus on how well the first 38 minutes had gone for them.
Duncan Keith, who scored the winning goal in the opener, put Nick Leddy in alone for Chicago’s first goal, the Kings getting too aggressive on a penalty-killing shift and Leddy shelving a backhand under the crossbar behind Quick. It stayed that way until the second shift of the second period, when Johnny Oduya made one of his patented 120-foot stretch passes up the middle. Brendan Bollig, a pretty skilled fourth liner, tipped it to Ben Smith, catching the defence pair of Alec Martinez and Slava Voynov flat-footed.
Smith, who’d come off the bench on a change, scored on the ensuing breakaway.
It was falling apart for L.A. at that point. After Quick robbed Seabrook on a two-on-one break following yet another overly aggressive pinch, coach Darryl Sutter called timeout – and Doughty was seen on the bench, slamming his stick, because he wasn’t happy with how the Kings were playing. That might have been a little inspirational, or maybe it just brought the challenge into sharper focus, but the Kings were far better at both ends of the ice from then on.
"Yeah, I was getting mad in the second period,” allowed Doughty. “We were giving up way too many odd-man rushes and leaving Quickie out to dry, it was kind of frustrating.
“We can't play a rush game with that team. If we want to play back and forth, rush after rush, we're going to lose. We need to play a possession game and we need to get in on our forecheck and always have that F3 in position.
“Maybe I shouldn't snap like that, but it's just me. Even though I get upset sometimes, people may think it goes in the other direction, but it just pumps me up.”
Sutter noted that the Kings were actually better, on balance, in the opener, a 3-1 loss, which has been an odd truth in these playoffs. Often, L.A.’s wins have come on nights when they’ve played less than a 60-minute game.
Tyler Toffoli, then Carter with two more, including an empty netter, made it six, the highest total Chicago's given up in these playoffs. So it will be back to the drawing board for them in the next two days.
“I mean, that was a good hockey game for us the first forty minutes and then a little bit of penalty trouble and they just took advantage,” said Crawford. “That was the game right there. We were trading momentum throughout the game, but I thought for the most part we had the better chances until the third period. I don’t know, it was just kind of a collapse I guess then. That happens. That wasn’t our hockey team. We’ve just got to rest up and prepare for a big game in LA.”