It was 75 days ago – back in the third week of March, when the Vancouver Canucks were the visitors – that the Los Angeles Kings last lost a game on home ice. Since then, they'd run off 15 wins in a row, eight of them in the playoffs. Sometimes, they were lucky to win but a lot of times, they were just flat-out better than the opposition. The Staples Centre had become an intimidating place to play. The 1988 Edmonton Oilers' record – of 11th consecutive playoff wins – was almost within reach.
But all good things ultimately come to an end and L.A.'s magical run on home-ice came screeching to a halt Thursday night against the Chicago Blackhawks. Playing without their No. 1 defenceman, Duncan Keith, the Blackhawks rallied from a one-goal deficit to post a 3-2 victory over the defending Stanley Cup champions, and took a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference final. Chicago can wrap up the series with a victory at home in Saturday's fifth game.
The Kings, 1-7 on the road in these playoffs, will now need to win twice at the United Centre to have any hopes of winning the series.
Keith missed the game as a result of a one-game suspension for high-sticking the Kings' Jeff Carter in the mouth. His replacement in the line-up, Sheldon Brookbank, showed the signs of heavy rust as a result of his lengthy layoff – he had yet to play in the playoffs – and was a minus-2 through two periods, and received only 6:50 of ice time on the night.
Thankfully for the Blackhawks, they received strong play from the rest of their defence corps, starting with their underrated shot-blocking whiz, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and the veterans Michael Rozsival and Brent Seabrook.
"We're proud to break that stretch," said Hjalmarsson, who set up the first two Chicago goals and was constantly getting into the shooting lanes to thwart the Kings offensive surges, which were few and far between. "We had our goal of trying to steal at least one game here. We knew it was going to be tough to win both games here after what they've been doing here so well for a long time, so … 'Mission accomplished'."
Rozsival and Brookbank mostly alternated as the sixth defencemen this season for Chicago, Rozsival getting into 27 games, Brookbank 26, but in the playoffs, Rozsival took the job over and had been getting upwards of 17 minutes of playing time per night.
On Thursday, Rozsival exceeded that total in the first 40 minutes alone, logging 18:35 of ice time.
"We didn't try to play any differently just because Dunks wasn't in the line-up," added Hjalmarrsson. "We tried to do what we usually do out there. I think we had a good game. Obviously, we won the game. That's a huge win for us. Now we're going to go home to the United Centre and try to close it out."
It was a night when the Blackhawks Patrick Kane finally ended an eight-game scoring slump, getting the tying goal with 1:39 to go in the second period and the Kings leading by a goal.
Seconds later, Kane then drew an interference penalty from the Kings' Robyn Regehr that spilled into the third period and ultimately led to the Blackhawks first lead of the game, which also doubled as the game-winning goal. It came, oddly enough, after Regehr's penalty expired. Regehr headed straight from the penalty box to the players' bench and seeing that, the Kings also tried to get a line change. The rush of players to the bench permitted the Blackhawks to get in for a clean two-on-one break, which Marian Hossa cashed after a fine feed from linemate Michal Handzus.
That gave Hossa his second game-winning goal of the series.
Slava Voynov and Dustin Penner had given the Kings 1-0 and 2-1 leads in the game. The Kings were 8-2 in these playoffs when scoring first and are usually money in the bank at home when they get out in front. But the Blackhawks battled back, with soon-to-be unrestricted free agent Bryan Bickell leading the charge again.
Bickell's first-period goal, at the 13:16 mark, was his team-leading eighth of the playoffs (he managed just nine during the regular season). It was a wrister, snapped from long range, that the usually reliable Jonathan Quick should have held. Bickell had another excellent chance about three minutes later, and it was his tip of a Hjalmarsson slap shot that Kane ended up pushing over the goal line.
"We need to get to the puck to the slot and create some havoc and make sure Quick has trouble seeing it," said Bickell. "If he sees it, he's going to make that save. We had opportunities to get some pucks there and it worked out. Going into the next game, we've got to bring the same approach we did today and hope we can carry on."
Bickell went on to say about snapping the Kings' long home-ice win streak: "They're Stanley Cup champions for a reason. They have a great team. I think they put out good match-ups against opposing teams. We're happy to get the win. We didn't want to go back home tied 2-2. We needed to get a win here to get that momentum back on our side."
Whatever push the Kings needed to get back in the game in the third ultimately wasn't there. In all, they managed just two shots in the final period on Chicago goaltender Corey Crawford. A late power-play opportunity – when Michal Frolik was sent to the box with 4:27 to go in regulation for high-sticking – yielded little.
"The power play could have made it a lot tougher on the Hawks tonight," said Penner. "As a club, we've got to be better. I had chances to make better players and I didn't."
Turnovers in the neutral zone were problematic for the Kings, a point defenceman Drew Doughty raised.
"That's the one thing Darryl (Sutter, the Kings' coach) has been hard on us right now. We're making too many turnovers in the neutral zone, especially. That caused two goals tonight."
Somewhat prophetically, Hossa spoke before the game about how good the Kings are defensively and how "you're not going to find too much open area. You have to really work for it. You have to get open, come to the spot, go back to the open ice again. You have to really find a way because they're a great defensive team and it's not easy out there. There's not much room. You have to keep fighting."
Hossa did, and so did the rest of the Blackhawks and now they are in a commanding position.
"It's something we've been doing all year – playing catch-up," said Hjalmarsson. "We never lay on our backs when we're down a couple of goals. It shows the character we have on the team. We just keep playing the same way."
As for the Kings, Doughty noted: "It was a tough one to lose tonight, but we knew we were going to have to win at least one in their rink so we're looking forward to the next challenge. It's a big game Saturday night and it's a must-win obviously. We have to have everyone rise to the occasion and be a good team."