It was just about a year ago that the Chicago Blackhawks put an end to the Los Angeles Kings' reign as Stanley Cup champions. The Kings were an injured bunch by then, Drew Doughty playing on one leg, Dustin Brown in need of surgery, the whole team running on fumes after two hard, physically demanding series. The Blackhawks won the series in five and didn't stop until they defeated the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup final.
Now, some 12 months later, the Kings are poised to turn the tables on the Blackhawks. They are the challengers, the Blackhawks are the champs, but it could all come to end Wednesday night, after the Kings defeated Chicago 5-2 Monday night at the Staples Center. The Kings opened up a three-goal first-period lead and then held on to move ahead 3-1 in the best-of-seven Western Conference final, with a chance to clinch a trip back to the Stanley Cup final – and eliminate the Blackhawks – in Game 5 in Chicago.
"We are trying to win one game, whether we are up 3-1, down 3-1, 2-2, no matter what the series is, that doesn't change what we are trying to do the next game," said Kings' goaltender Jonathan Quick, who outplayed his Blackhawks' counterpart, Corey Crawford once again.
Ultimately, it was goaltending plus a decisive edge in the special teams' game that won it for the Kings – along with a healthy dose of Drew Doughty. Doughty has a chance to clinch two important awards in these playoffs, one official, one not. His presence at both ends of the ice, so good defensively, so important offensively, makes Doughty the current Conn Smythe favorite as the most valuable player in the West.
Moreover, with his bold talk between games and his willingness to embrace the spotlight have also made Doughty the series MVT – most valuable talker. On the morning of the game, for example, when everyone else was tap dancing around what may or may not happen, Doughty boldly called Game 4 a "must win" for the Kings, on the grounds that if they lost, "it puts them right back in the series and gives them a bit of momentum. If we win, we're going back to Chicago up 3-1 and that's the place we want to be. If we want to win this series, I think we have to win this game."
Call it a prophecy fulfilled or a mission accomplished.
After relying heavily on the Jeff Carter-Tyler Toffoli-Tanner Pearson line for the first three games, the Kings received a big game from the nominal No. 1 line – of Anze Kopitar, Marian Gaborik and Dustin Brown. Gaborik scored his 10th playoff goal of the spring, a career high, on a nice feed from Kopitar. Brown scored the second of two first-period power-play goals by the Kings and Kopitar also drew the primary assist on Doughty's second-period goal, which gave L.A. a four-goal lead.
Even though Kopitar hadn't had a great series offensively, coach Darryl Sutter said he was satisfied with his play, in part because he drew most of the heavy minutes against the Blackhawks' Jonathan Toews.
"He (Kopitar) plays up to his potential every night," said Sutter. "I know it gets based out here usually on goals or assists or points, but he's a pretty dominant player in all three zones, every night."
The Kings had given up the opening goal in the first three games, but the roles were reversed Monday night, with Chicago falling behind early and then pushing hard in the third to get back in the game. Brandon Saad scored 80 seconds after Doughty's goal, to make it 4-1 Los Angeles and then Bryan Bickell fished a puck out of a mad scramble in front of Quick about halfway through the third to close the gap to two. Tanner Pearson's empty-netter put it away for the Kings.
But the Kings recorded the best defensive record in the NHL last season for a reason – they don't let four-goal leads slip through their fingers very often.
By scoring on their first two power-play attempts of the night, it meant the Kings had scored five goals on seven manpower advantages since Saturday's game.
"Clearly the difference in the game," said Sutter. "The first period it's special teams: there's four total, and that's the difference."
Chicago, by contrast, cannot buy a power-play goal on the road in these playoffs, and weren't able to get one past Jonathan Quick on this night either.
"Our special teams all year have been a strength of our team," said Blackhawks' coach Joel Quenneville. "The first two series, penalty killing might have been the reason why we won either series. Right now they're going against us, so we have to shore up that area. And our power play, our production's been off a little bit. I think we've got to make sure whether we're scoring or not, we've got to sustain and gather momentum, when the power play's out there."
On the Blackhawks' side, Patrick Kane noted that they overcame a 3-1 deficit in the second round last year to the Detroit Red Wings en route to winning the Stanley Cup, so they have been down this road before.
"You can look back at that and say we came out and were successful, why can't we do it again?" said Kane. "It's tough in the position we're in now but at the same time we still feel good about our team here and we all know we've done it before. We've got to have that confidence to try and win the next game."
The Blackhawks made changes of their own, moving Kane up to the No. 1 line alongside Jonathan Toews and Bickell to start the game. Kane, who did so much damage against the Kings in the final two games of last year's series, continues to be quiet this time out, although he did pick his up first point of the series, with an assist on Bickell's goal.
"Just don't look at the big picture," advised Toews. "Obviously we don't like what we see. We've just got to focus on the next game. We're still alive in the series and there's no time to feel sorry for ourselves. Teams have come back from this situation before. That belief and confidence have to be there. It's got to be everybody."
The Blackhawks also switched up their power-play units, moving Brent Seabrook up to the top pair in place of Patrick Sharp, and dropping Sharp back to the second unit with Nick Leddy. For the most part, the No. 2 unit produced more chances overall, but didn't nearly enough traffic in front of Quick, the way the Kings did against his Blackhawks' counterpart Corey Crawford. The Kings have found a way of sifting shots through from the point against Crawford, defenceman Jake Muzzin opening the scoring for the Kings and Doughty getting a knuckler through at 12:43 of the second, a shot that may or may not have been deflected in by Williams.
"It just seems like they're scoring different goals on their power play in different ways," said Blackhawks' defenceman Duncan Keith. "I think we can try to get clears when we have the puck. If we just settle down a bit out there we'll be fine."