'Exceptional' Blackhawks on brink of Stanley Cup finals with win over Kings
Johnny Oduya, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook and Michal Rozsival step up
LOS ANGELES - The concept of “stepping up” may seem the most tiresome cliche of any Stanley Cup playoff season, but now and then, you see the real thing.
Minus their best defenceman, the suspended Duncan Keith, the Chicago Blackhawks got exceptional performances from the men who had to combine to soak up Keith’s usual 25 minutes-plus of ice time: Johnny Oduya, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook and Michal Rozsival.
Just as the Los Angeles Kings won Game 3 without their top centre, Mike Richards, the Blackhawks shrugged off Keith’s absence and rode a plucky performance from the back end and Marian Hossa’s early third-period goal to a 3-2 victory and a 3-1 death grip on the Western Conference final.
They can eliminate the Stanley Cup champions by winning Game 5 Saturday in Chicago.
Oduya broke up an L.A. rush at the Hawks’ blueline just after the Kings had killed off a Robyn Regehr penalty, swept a sweet pass to Michal Handzus breaking through the middle and the big Slovak centre fed his countryman, Hossa, for a blistering one-timer under the crossbar that L.A. goalie Jonathan Quick was powerless to stop.
“It was a perfect pass right in my wheelhouse,” said Hossa. “(Handzus) is more playmaker than shooter, so when he had the puck in his hands, I knew I just needed to open myself up and he would give it to me. I just tried to hit it high and the puck went in. I felt we were pressuring their goalie.”
The game won’t be going into the Goaltending Time Capsule for future generations.
Both Quick and Chicago’s Corey Crawford gave up stinkers -- Quick’s faux pas on a hopeful wrister from the blueline by Hawks’ power forward Bryan Bickell, who had enough chances for a four-goal night Thursday but settled for the singleton, tying the game 1-1 when Quick misjudged his shot and muffed it into the net in the game’s 14th minute.
Crawford failed to cover a weak backhand by Jeff Carter, leaving it for Dustin Penner to poke past him for a 2-1 L.A. lead early in the second.
But the Kings couldn’t protect it against a newly-created line of Jonathan Toews with Bickell and Patrick Kane on the wings, which buzzed the L.A. net for a full shift before a Bickell deflection of Niklas Hjalmarsson’s shot trickled between Quick’s legs and Kane -- who’s been mired in an horrific slump -- helped it across the line at 18:21 for his third goal in 16 games.
“The top six forwards, it seems like it doesn’t matter who plays with who,” Hossa said. “We found a way to score a goal with Patrick Kane, and that goal seem to spark us again.’’
The Kings got the start they wanted from the now-usual source, defenceman Slava Voynov, who finished off a good fourth-line shift by Colin Fraser and Kyle Clifford, rifling a 40-foot slapper past Crawford 3:28 into the game, his sixth goal of the playoffs.
Considering the 23-year-old Russian’s magical springtime had already included four game-winners, it was reasonable to suppose the Kings might somehow find a way to win 1-0.
But Bickell has been even hotter, and his long floater that got past Quick -- “A tip," said the goalie, “shot from the point, tipped (by Regehr)” -- was his eighth of the post-season, not bad for a pending unrestricted free agent whose value is undoubtedly going through the roof.
The big winger almost got his ninth a couple of minutes later, too, parked unchecked on the edge of the crease, and the Kane goal probably would have been his, too, if Kane hadn’t arrived before it crossed the line. He was robbed by Quick, lying on his side and gloving Bickell’s high shot, in the third.
“He’s been probably the most important player on our team,” said Hjalmarsson. “He’s doing everything, scoring goals, big hits for us, just a big body out there. He’s been unbelievable in the playoffs, that’s for sure.”
“I think I’m in that zone,” Bickell said. “I know Hossa and Toews emphasize holding on to the puck, and not just to throw it away when you’re pressured. Use your size. Hossa is probably the best guy in the league at protecting the puck. Just to look at him, it gives me confidence to do it, too.”
The Hawks’ win, meanwhile, snapped L.A.’s eight-game home winning streak, and -- cue the music from Jaws -- left them needing to win a game on the road, where they’re 1-7 in these playoffs.
“We’ve been through a lot as a group, but we’ve never been faced with a situation like this,” said Kings captain Dustin Brown. “The trademark of this team has been to believe in each other, trust in each other.”
The home loss doesn’t make the need to win a road game any more difficult, Quick said.
“No, it’s the same. You don’t have to adjust your game, home or road. We’re going to go into their barn, we’ve won there before, and we’ve got to win one game.”
The Kings had plenty of chances to win this one, but couldn’t exploit some shaky moments by Crawford, or capitalize on three power plays, one in each period against superior penalty killing by Chicago, which successfully got past the one-game suspension to Keith.
“The reason they're a great defensive team, they've been all year, is not just with the goaltender, but the way they spread their minutes out,” said Kings coach Darryl Sutter. “You take that guy out of their lineup, it gives four other top guys a few more minutes is all it does. Doesn't really hurt them at all, to be quite honest.”
“We won the game so I would say mission accomplished,” said Hjalmarsson. “Personally, I was a little lost in the first period on the left side, but I figured it out better as the game went on. He’s back next game. He’s a big part of our team. It’s going to be even better when he returns.”
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