So it comes down to this again:
One game, between the last two Stanley Cup champions, to decide which team gets to play for the trophy again.
Well, why not?
You always had the sense that the Chicago Blackhawks and the Los Angeles Kings' series would go down to the wire – and it will, thanks to Chicago's 4-3 victory Friday night at Staples Center. The win, in a nervously played game where the lead kept changing hands, tied the Western Conference final at three apiece, with the deciding game set for the United Center in Chicago Sunday night.
Chicago is a sparkling 8-1 on home-ice in these playoffs, its only loss coming to the Kings in Game 2 of the series.
L.A., meanwhile, has won six road games in these playoffs, including victories in two previous Game 7s against both the San Jose Sharks and the Anaheim Ducks in the first two rounds.
It should be a fitting conclusion to a wonderfully unpredictable series and the loudest cheers are likely coming from the New York Rangers, who qualified in the Eastern Conference by defeating the Montreal Canadiens Thursday night and will now get six days of rest before the Stanley Cup final begins.
"I don't think anything motivates you like having your back against the wall, and potentially walking into a game where your season might end," said Blackhawks' captain Jonathan Toews. "I think every single guy in this room thinks about that, lets it sink in a little bit, and we realize how great this opportunity is.
"We worked very hard to get here and you don't want to let it just slip away. We thought about that the last few days and worked very hard to get back in this series. We have a chance to stay alive and keep playing hockey for a little while longer."
Patrick Kane, coming on strong for the Blackhawks after a slow start in the series, set up the tying goal and then scored his second of the night with 3:45 to go in regulation to key the Blackhawks' comeback. On the play, Kane took a drop pass from linemate Brandon Saad, and drifted across the top of the Kings' zone unchallenged before firing a shot through traffic that eluded his U.S. Olympic teammate Jonathan Quick in the L.A. goal.
Kane had only a single point in the first four games, but he now has seven in the next two, with the Blackhawks fighting to get off the ropes.
"The last two games have been pretty wild, to say the least," said Kane. "I'm sure it's fun for the fans to watch but we know they're a resilient group and they've won two game 7s on the road. It's going to be a tough one. We're happy with the win but it doesn't mean anything because we haven't won anything yet. We'll get ready for the next one and we know they'll bring their best for Game 7."
When the Blackhawks put the Kings on the sidelines last year, it was Kane who scored the double overtime winner in Game 5. Earlier this post-season, Kane eliminated the Minnesota Wild, also by scoring the decisive clinching OT goal. Kane hadn't had a great series up to that point, but found a way in OT when it mattered.
Most people with long memories will also remember how it was Kane who scored the OT winner in the sixth game over the Philadelphia Flyers to clinch the 2010 Stanley Cup for the Blackhawks. He has a knack for these types of things – and as a short and slight player, flies in the face of what many people might think of as a big-game player.
All he does is produce when it matters.
"It's unbelievable," said Toews, who played give-and-go with Kane on the first Blackhawks' goal, on the power play early in the second period. "I looked at him, I think it was about a minute left, I think there was a stoppage of play and I almost started laughing. It's amazing what he can do in these big games, when our season is on the line and nobody else seems to be able to do it the same way he does it. It's pretty amazing."
On the Kings' side, Doughty had another fine night. His third-period performance mirrored Kane's, scoring a goal and setting up another to give L.A. a short-lived lead. But he wasn't willing to endorse Kane for sainthood or the Hall Of Fame just yet.
"You know what, yeah, last game (Kane) got four assists, but I didn't think it was like he dominated the game," said Doughty, defiantly. "The stat sheet tells a different story than the actual game."
It was a night when the scoring came in bunches. The Blackhawks scored twice in a 47-second span of the second period – by Kane and Ben Smith - to turn a one-goal deficit into a one-goal lead. The Kings responded with two third-period goals in a 126-second span to regain the lead – by Doughty and Alec Martinez - only to give it back again on Duncan Keith's goal with under nine minutes to go in regulation.
Emotionally, the Kings are OK according to Doughty. Los Angeles is 6-0 this post-season in elimination games.
"We're fine," said Doughty. "We still believe we could have won this game tonight. We know that we can still beat this Chicago Blackhawk team, but we also know it's not going to be easy. They're going to have their best game in this Game 7, especially in their home rink. We've just got to reset, fly over there tomorrow, and just be ready to win a hockey game."
As the teams filed off the ice at the end of the second period, Quick and Crawford bumped into each other at the Kings' blue line, Crawford deliberately waiting for Quick to skate past before briefly exchanging words.
Chicago turned the tide originally on the first shift of the second period, when Toews drew a holding penalty from the Kings' Anze Kopitar, with an aggressive dash down the right side. With Kopitar in the penalty box, Toews and Kane beautifully executed a give-and-go, Kane finishing with a snap shot past Quick.
The Blackhawks took their first lead of the game less than two minutes later, on a goal by Smith that came after a good cross-ice feed from linemate Patrick Sharp. Quick made the first save, but Smith stayed with the play and banked the rebound in off the Kings' goalie from behind the net.
Not much later, Quick had to be sharp to stop Sharp on a two-on-zero break, Marcus Kruger feeding him a pass, but Quick anticipating that he wasn't about to shoot and getting across the crease in a hurry to deny the scoring chance.
Blackhawks defenceman Johnny Oduya saved a goal in the second period, when Alec Martinez was wide-open on a wraparound attempt, Crawford slow to get across the crease, with the Kings on the power play. But Oduya got his stick in the way and the loose puck skittered off Martinez's stick safely into Crawford's pads.
Dwight King scored a first-period goal for Los Angeles, on a centering pass from Jarret Stoll after he outhustled Blackhawks' defenceman Brent Seabrook for a free puck behind the Blackhawks' goal.
The Blackhawks overcame a 3-1 series deficit to win the second round last year against the Detroit Red Wings en route to their second Stanley Cup championship in the past four years.