It was a game that tested every bit of poise and composure in the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, a game that started well, turned ugly for a time, but in the end went their way.
The Blackhawks squeezed out a wild 5-4 double overtime win over the Los Angeles Kings Wednesday night, in a thrill-a-minute game and forced a sixth game in a Western Conference playoff series Friday back in Los Angeles.
The dramatic winner came from a thoroughly unlikely source, former King Michael Handzus, who'd had a difficult time thus far in the series. But on a night when both teams seemed prepared to trade scoring chances at will, Handzus took a pinpoint cross-ice feed from teammate Brandon Saad and found a seam between the Kings' defence pair of Slava Voynov and Willie Mitchell. Handzus was playing in Andrew Shaw's regular spot, coach Joel Quenneville putting him on the ice to take a defensive zone face-off. He stayed out there and was in a perfect position to lift a backhander past Kings' goaltender Jonathan Quick, permitting the Blackhawks to stave off elimination.
"We put everything on the line," said Handzus. "Obviously it's a big win, but in playoffs you got to stay even keel. It's only one game. We still 3-2 down. We got to go there and do the big job, win one over there."
It was a seesaw game that featured multiple lead changes and an important strategy shift by Quenneville that had both positive and negative implications for his team.
Reeling after losing three consecutive games in the series, Quenneville juggled all of his defence pairings as well as a couple of his forward lines and instructed his defence to revert to the aggressive, attacking behaviour that normally characterizes their game. Quenneville told his defence corps that "the lights have never been greener" – and early on, his team took the advice to heart, opening up an early two-goal lead on goals by defencemen Brent Seabrook and Johnny Oduya.
Seabrook's goal came with the man advantage, as the Blackhawks' special teams finally got untracked, Drew Doughty in the penalty box for taking the legs out from under Jonathan Toews. On the play, Seabrook sifted a screened shot through the point, with Shaw stationed in front of Kings' goaltender Jonathan Quick to allow the Blackhawks to open the scoring for the fourth time in five games.
Shaw – who returned to the line-up for Game 3 of the series, after missing seven games with a right leg injury – was an important factor for the Blackhawks. In Quenneville's adjustments, Shaw, Saad and Patrick Kane were assembled as a trio, and Kane benefitted most from the new arrangement, earning three first-period assists, largely because he was able to get away from the match-up against the Kings' top defence pair of Doughty and Jake Muzzin. Kane finished with four assists, including a key set up on Handzus's game winner.
"They were excellent, outstanding," assessed Quenneville. "They brought speed off the rush, play recognition, finish, support. I thought they all had huge games and that might have been a discovery."
"It was a fun game playing with them," said Kane. "They're both extremely hard workers. Personally I thought Saad was the best player on the ice tonight. He was bringing so much speed and puck protection. He was awesome tonight."
Kane had had a quiet series up to that point, denied puck possession by the Kings' relentless physical play, but he managed to gain control of the puck far more frequently and was the key playmaker during the Blackhawks' strong start.
"Our biggest thing going into the game was to try and get pucks back and create off that," said Kane. "Get turnovers in their end. You saw that a few times, especially on [Saad]'s goal. We did that a couple of times and some other plays too.
Johnny Oduya, with the second Blackhawks' goal, converted a rebound of a Kane shot; and on their third goal, by Saad, Kane created the turnover by stripping the puck from Kings' defenceman Willie Mitchell.
On the Los Angeles side, the key offensive contributors were the No. 1 line – of Anze Kopitar, Marian Gaborik and Dustin Brown. Gaborik and Brown each had a goal, while Jarret Stoll and Tanner Pearson chipped in the others. Brown, the Kings' captain who'd been playing down the depth chart earlier in the playoffs, was back on the top line and his physical presence opened up space for both of his linemates.
Gaborik, a trading-deadline addition from the Columbus Blue Jackets, now has 11 playoff goals. Only Wayne Gretzky and Luc Robitaille have ever had more in Kings' playoff history.
L.A. had managed to turn a 3-1 deficit into a 4-3 lead on Tanner Pearson's goal, which caught Blackhawks' goaltender Corey Crawford frozen in the net, a high heavy wrist shot from the top of the circle that went in over his shoulder.
But the Blackhawks received an important goal from Ben Smith early in the third, tying the game and setting up the dramatic conclusion in extra time.
Quenneville changed all three of his regular defence pairs, putting Duncan Keith with Niklas Hjalmarsson, Oduya with Michal Rozsival and Seabrook with Nick Leddy, in the hopes that the new-old look would get his players thinking again. It turned out to be a double-edged sword, the changes making the Blackhawks more threatening offensively, but not as well-organized in their own zone.
But the Blackhawks figured they had nothing to lose, with the series on the line, and figured that the strategy of shifting around the defence pairs keyed their turnaround last year, when they fell behind the Detroit Red Wings 3-1 but ultimately came back to win the series.
"We didn't like the last three games," said Quenneville. "It was almost exactly like last year, 3-1, we changed pairs back. The ones we had tonight were basically the ones from most of last year so they were not unfamiliar."
Crawford, who was so instrumental in last year's championship season and was good again in the opening two rounds for the Blackhawks, had another tough night, but battened down the hatches when needed. He'd given up 13 goals in the previous three games, and then four more in the elimination game, a thrilling wide-open back-and-forth affair, which theoretically should have favored Chicago. After the victory, Crawford's career record in elimination games is now up to 8-2.
For his part, Handzus was under no illusions about how his series had gone thus far. It hasn't been very good.
"I'm not real happy how I played," he said, "but you just got to be confident. It's a lot of fun to be playing in the playoffs. It's the conference finals. You cannot just look at yourself all the time, be down, be disappointed. You just got to be positive. If you don't want be positive, then probably you won't get out of the slump or anything.
"I stay positive. I'm better player than I showed. I try to show it next game again."
Kopitar hit the post in a fast-paced first overtime period, which featured only nine stoppages, three in the final minute, and took fewer than 27 minutes to play in real time.
"The start we had was awful," said Doughty, who played a game high 39 minutes and four seconds for the Kings. "Bad start and just losing in overtime, that stings a lot. Knowing we could have had it so many times. We had the lead going into the third. You can't ask for much more than that. To give up a goal kinda early in the third is a little bit of a dagger. We had opportunities to win tonight."