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Finding new ways to stay alive

CHICAGO -- With his famous mustache and intimidating mien, Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville only seems like he was born a hockey coach.

Quenneville was probably born screaming, though possibly not at a referee.

The guy has seen a lot of hockey -- playing and coaching. But even Quenneville can be amazed.

"I've seen a lot of games, been involved in a lot of games, but that might've been the greatest overtime I've seen," he said Wednesday.

Of course, he said this after the Blackhawks beat the Los Angeles Kings 5-4 in double overtime on a goal from a fast-skating Michal Handzus, that Slovakian speed demon you all know and love.

One doubts Quenneville would have felt the same if the Blackhawks were eliminated in a thrilling Game 5 of the Western Conference finals.

But they weren't eliminated, so it was the best two overtimes ever.

"It was like when they had the whistle there, basically a timeout, in the first overtime there in that stretch there, I don't know how many minutes and seconds, but it was a 'wow' factor," Quenneville said. "I think I appreciated it. The guys were working and the pace was unbelievable. It was good action."

That "good action" stretch was nearly eight minutes long between stoppages, a flurry of missed chances and game-extending plays that epitomized playoff hockey.

"I thought it was an unbelievable period," Patrick Kane said. "Up and back the whole period. A lot of chances. I think we probably had more chances than they did in overtime. But a lot of times you thought the game was over, especially for us."

After the Blackhawks won the first game of the series, loose talk around Chicago was about a budding dynasty. Three Cups in five years. Heresy about challenging Michael Jordan's Bulls for civic supremacy. Chatter, really.

Three losses later, the city's hockey buzz was waning.

But the Blackhawks have been there before and, give them credit, they always have an answer. They answered the St. Louis Blues' 2-0 lead in their first-round series, just like they answered the Detroit Red Wings' 3-1 series lead last year.

"I think it's a special group," Kane said. "I think we know that in the locker room. Seems like in a lot of these games we find ways to win whether we should or not."

Cancel the funeral, but don't start planning the parade. The Western Conference dynasty is up for grabs.

With elimination hanging over their heads, the Blackhawks took a quick 2-0 lead before four minutes elapsed. But they trailed 4-3 going into the third period. They looked like an imperfect contender: a very good team that got very lucky with their biggest foes losing in the playoffs.

But it didn't take a dramatic goal to tie the game and set up the fantastic finish, as Ben Smith scored quickly into the third period.

As time ticked by, you wondered who would win it, who would lose it. All it takes is a chance, a bounce or deflection. Or a perfect pass from Brandon Saad to a streaking -- yes, streaking -- Handzus, the oldest player on the Blackhawks, coming down the middle. Handzus collected the pass and backhanded it past Jonathan Quick.

"I think he slowed down so he could make the pass," Handzus said. "I was surprised, too, that I could get open like that."

In the past five years, the United Center has gotten pretty loud, but the crowd's reaction on that game winner was up there, decibel-wise.

Saad said that before the second overtime the talk in the locker room was "someone is going to be the hero."

It was Handzus, looking and sounding like a "Game of Thrones" warrior who survived a demotion from the second line with Kane and Saad to be a playoff principal. He was back with those two because he subbed in midway through the shift, Quenneville said.

"He's a leader out there and he does all the right things," Saad said. "It's good to see him get rewarded."

Before the game, the Blackhawks tried to deflect the pressure to advance on the Kings. L.A. had to clinch. Chicago just had to survive.

The Hawks came out loose and played fast, their elimination attitude defined by the newly reconfigured Kane-Saad-Andrew Shaw line. Kane had four assists, Saad a goal and two assists and Shaw two assists.

"They were excellent, outstanding," Quenneville said. "They brought speed off the rush, play recognition, finish and support. They all had huge games. That might have been a discovery."

In a game defined by that line's speed and ferocity, it makes a certain sense that Handzus won it. It was a right time and a right place for a hero. And in the playoffs, you never know who that will be.