CHICAGO -- As the hours dwindled away before Game 7, the pivotal game in the Western Conference finals, it's been harder and harder not to imagine that this single game will decide not just the Western Conference champion but ultimately the winner of the 2014 Stanley Cup.
With all due respect to the New York Rangers (and how many times will we see or hear that disclaimer in the days leading up to the start of the Stanley Cup finals on Wednesday in Chicago or Los Angeles?), the level of hockey on display over the previous six games in the West finals -- a level that we expect to be replicated if not exponentially elevated Sunday night in Game 7 -- leaves little doubt that the best team in hockey will be the team left standing at the end of the night at the United Center in Chicago.
"Being a part of it, we know it's been a special series, a lot of up-and-down, fast-paced games,” said Blackhawks winger Ben Smith, who scored his fourth goal of the postseason in Game 6 in Los Angeles. "We want to be on the winning side of it. The loser of this series probably won't be remembered. We want to put ourselves in the spot where we can get that win, be the guys that come [out] on top of this series that's been one of the best series in a while. Just keep that pace up.
"I think it's going to be that same way. A fast-paced, hard-working, grinding type game. We're going to be prepared for it."
The best team doesn’t always win the Stanley Cup, but there’s a reason Sunday’s Game 7 is the most eagerly anticipated match of the postseason. The reasons are multitudinous, but at the heart of it all is the fact that no two teams in recent memory are better prepared emotionally and physically for a game of this import.
The Blackhawks are unbeatable late in a series, the last two years compiling a 13-0 record in Games 5, 6 and 7, and are bidding to become the first team in playoff history to recover from a 3-1 series deficit in consecutive playoff years, having come back against the Detroit Red Wings in the second round last spring.
Those are just numbers, of course, but they speak to a shared history of success in crucial moments.
“The further along you go, the more intense it is and the more excitement builds within it,” Williams said Sunday morning, besieged by reporters and cameras in the Kings’ locker room. "There's one game on tonight, and we're it. You get a chance to give it a go, a chance to play for the ultimate prize yet again, and we don't want to let that slip through our fingers. Successful teams rely on the successes they've had, and the failures they've had, in recent years. We've had a lot of successes in Game 7s. Yes, when you look around, we need to have that confidence in the team. We've done it, and we can do it again."
While the historic numbers are interesting talking points, of more interest is the recent past that has seen the Kings blow a 3-1 series lead, including losing two straight games in which they have held third-period leads.
Netminder Jonathan Quick, who has been stellar in the Kings’ six elimination wins, allowing just eight goals, has been only average in the last two losses, allowing nine goals. And while he’s had his ups and downs, Corey Crawford seems to have rediscovered his groove from the middle of Game 5 and on through most of Game 6.
The Blackhawks also sawed off the Kings in the special-teams battle in Game 6 at Staples Center and have been much more productive on the power play at home, going 8-for-26 at the United Center this spring.
Those are the factors that will likely say a great deal about the outcome of Sunday’s game.
"Just been a lot of traffic and both teams putting pucks at the net," Kings coach Darryl Sutter said Sunday of the goaltending issues in the series. "With the skill sets of some of the players, they're able to probably challenge the goalies more one-on-one than we would see maybe in the regular season."
Although Chicago coach Joel Quenneville has insisted the Blackhawks are still a four-line team like the Kings, look for him to use a revamped fourth line sparingly in Game 7. He moved Marcus Kruger to a third line with Patrick Sharp and Smith for the morning skate Sunday, while the fourth line was Brandon Bollig, Game 5 double-overtime hero Michal Handzus and Kris Versteeg, who was a healthy scratch in Game 6. If Quenneville stays with that unit, it will see limited ice time.
"Over the years, I’ve played a little bit with Krugs and played with him the last couple of games,” said Sharp, who had his best game of the series in Game 6. "If we’re together tonight, we’ll be fine. We know how to support each other and what makes us successful.
"He can do a lot of different things. He plays the right way, he’s got an offensive touch that most people don’t realize, and he’s going to be in the right spot defensively, so he’s a fun guy to play with."
How the Blackhawks lines and pairings look for Game 7:
Patrick Sharp-Marcus Kruger-Ben Smith
Brandon Bollig-Michal Handzus-Kris Versteeg
Meanwhile, the Kings are expected to go with the same lineup that has gotten them this far.