CHICAGO - The Los Angeles Kings survived a first-round series in which the St. Louis Blues had them down two games to none, so they’re not in uncharted waters.
But the seas are rough, and the Chicago Blackhawks are blasting gaping holes in their hull. The Stanley Cup champions’ ship hasn’t sunk yet, but it’s listing precariously.
Sunday night at United Center, after playoff warrior Mike Richards was a late scratch with probable concussion symptoms, the Kings gave it a valiant effort — probably played better than in their 2-1 Game 1 loss — but soon found themselves exposed by a Blackhawks team that looks to be gaining confidence by the minute.
The Hawks scored twice in each of the first two periods, causing L.A. coach Darryl Sutter to give his normally bulletproof goalie Jonathan Quick a mercy hook after Bryan Bickell and Michal Handzus scored the third and fourth Chicago goals in quick succession, and took a 2-0 grip on the series with a comfortable 4-2 victory.
``We expected them to be better than they were in Game 1 and they were. We raised our play, too,” said Hawks captain Jonathan Toews. “Once we got up a few goals, we knew we didn’t need to score more but we didn’t want to change our game too much. I think we know it’s going to get tougher and tougher, especially going into their building. We’ll find that next level like we did tonight.’’
It’s going to take a massive turnaround for the Cup defenders to reverse the momentum when they hit home ice Tuesday night.
Not impossible, but the odds are long. These aren’t the offensively-challenged St. Louis Blues the Kings are facing; the Presidents’ Trophy winners are a whole different animal, deep and swift and talented.
“I think so,” said L.A. defenceman Rob Scuderi. “I think with the sustained pressure they’ve had on us, the way they’ve been able to generate turnovers and then capitalize on them is maybe more effective than St. Louis. I think they have some different players that are more offensively dynamic. Not a knock against St. Louis, that’s just the type of players they have.”
Sutter had betrayed no hint of a Richards concussion as late as 4 p.m., when he submitted to a pre-game media interview session and dismissed a query as to the center’s health with “He’s fine.” When someone followed up with, “Mike bounced back well, no issues?” the coach snapped, “I really have nothing to say about it. It’s not an issue.”
Nor did it appear to be when Richards — who looked dazed after a contentious hit late in Game 1 by Dave Bolland — was seen outside the Kings locker-room taking part in a game of touch soccer with his teammates, or when he took the pre-game warm-up.
But it became one after warm-up, Sutter said.
“He was fine today, then I think just once his blood got pumping tonight, the adrenalin got going, there were symptoms,” he said. “I went in right after warm-up, he was sitting there and I said, ‘Unless you’re 100 per cent, you’re not playing.’”
And now it’s as big an issue as there is, for the Kings’ hopes of survival.
If he’s out for long, this could be a short series.
Sutter said he doesn’t know the answer to that question.
“Literally I talked to him for a minute before the game,” he said. “I didn’t feel, and he didn’t feel, he should play either.”
After a 16-4 run to the Stanley Cup last spring in which they had virtually no injury problems and seemed to win at will on the road, the Kings are now 1-7 away from Staples Center, and have had injuries left and right ... and centre, for that matter, where third-line pivot Jarret Stoll just came back from a two-week enforced leave after a Game 1 concussion against San Jose, and now Richards is out.
Despite all that, the Kings came out of the gate with determination Sunday, establishing a better forecheck, pressuring the Hawks in their end and outshooting them 13-9 in the first period.
Alas, their problems finishing plays persisted, and the Hawks got the only two goals. Both came off pretty, no-look, behind-the-back passes — Viktor Stalberg’s to Andrew Shaw, who beat Quick on the Blackhawks’ second shot of the game at 1:56, then Marian Hossa’s to trailer Brent Seabrook, who stepped into a slapshot from the top of the right-wing circle and found a hole above Quick’s right pad at 19:09.
The decision to replace Quick with backup Jonathan Bernier just shy of the game’s midpoint wasn’t anything more than an energy-saver, Sutter said.
“I think we play five games in the next 10 days,” he said.
Or he hopes they do. The Kings would have to win three of the next four to make that happen.
Chasing Quick, who was lights-out in winning the Conn Smythe Trophy a year ago, was “huge for us,” Toews said. “We went through a little spurt in the last series where we were doing the right things but the pucks weren’t going in. So now we’re getting the results we want.”
“Well, we had some nice shots,” said Chicago coach Joel Quenneville. “We had some high-quality stuff off the rush, as well, in that period. Some nights they go in. But I still think he’s a special goalie that we got to keep trying to get the quality (chances against).”
Jeff Carter, centering the second line in Richards’s absence, got the Kings on the board with a little over a minute left in the second period, and after Duncan Keith was penalized for shooting the puck over the glass, Tyler Toffoli finally dented the Blackhawks’ penalty kill at 18:58 of the third period, the first power play goal the Hawks have given up at home in 27 enemy chances in these playoffs, and only the second, home or away, on 47 opportunities.
But the game was essentially over at 4-0, and the Hawks had long since taken their collective foot off the gas.
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Jonathan Toews #19 of the Chicago Blackhawks reacts in front of goaltender Jonathan Quick #32 of the Los Angeles Kings after a goal by Brent Seabrook #7 of the Chicago Blackhawks (not in photo) in the first period of Game Two.
Photograph by: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images