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Thursday, June 6, 2013
Hawks take control on the road

By Pierre LeBrun
ESPN.com

Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville provided it, swapping Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane from their spots on the top two lines, a move that provided the kind of dividends a coach can only dream of; and perhaps providing the most critical moment in the series.

Kane scored his first goal in eight games to tie the contest 2-2 with 1:39 left in the second period; Hossa blasted a one-timer past Jonathan Quick 1:10 into the third period for Chicago's first lead of the game.

Game over.

Tip of the hat, coach.

"Sometimes you're doing it just to change things," Quenneville said of his hunch to swap Kane and Hossa. "We were behind, I still didn't mind the way we were playing at that point of the game. Maybe you get one, and we did."

They got two, and now the Los Angeles Kings' title defense is hanging by a thread, the 2012 champs suffering their first loss at home in the playoffs (8-1), potentially a back-breaking moment in their season.

Hossa's goal felt like what might turn out to be the defining moment in the series.

"It's huge," Hossa said of the 3-2 win. "It's a big difference: 2-2 coming home, or 3-1. We are glad to win in this building. We know they were playing so well at home, and [to] finally break that streak."

The Blackhawks continue to rise to the challenge when adversity knocks at the door. They entered Game 4 without top blueliner and former Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith. They trailed the Kings twice in the game and were in a building where the home team hadn't lost since March 23, dating back 15 games overall.

But pull through the Hawks did, getting elevated performances on this night from Kane, Hossa, Jonathan Toews, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Michal Handzus and another standout night from Bryan Bickell.

"A big win for us," said Hawks goalie Corey Crawford, who stopped 19 of 21 shots. "After being down a goal and being down again, it showed some character to stick with our game. It's been that way all playoffs. We believe if we keep going, we have a chance."

Kane had entered the game in a pronounced slump with only two assists in seven games, but on Wednesday told reporters in a lengthy interview session that he was determined to break out with a better effort. He sure did, delivering his strongest effort in a while -- not just scoring the tying goal, but being a dangerous force all night for the Hawks with a team-high seven shots on goal.

"He had the puck early and a lot," Quenneville said. "He's dangerous off the rush. Took some shots through the screens. Nice to see him score, as well."

Hossa was all over the puck, as well, and combined with his old Slovak pal Handzus on the winner, finishing a pretty 2-on-1 break with a blistering shot upstairs.

"He's more playmaker than shooter. When he had the puck in his hands, I knew I just needed to open myself up and he would give it to me," Hossa said of the winning play with Handzus.

Bickell? Well, he just did his thing. He crashed the net all night long, created havoc all over the place and tied the game 1-1 at 13:16 of the first period with a wrist shot that handcuffed Quick. Make it eight playoff goals for Bickell -- aka the human cash register -- as the pending unrestricted free agent continues to elevate his contract leverage.

Bryan Bickell #29 of the Chicago Blackhawks
Bryan Bickell continued his torrid playoff run Thursday.

"He's been probably the most important player on our team," Hjalmarsson said. "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."

Noticeable of late is Bickell's desire to try to hang on to the puck more instead of just quickly dishing it off to linemates or dumping it in. That's a sign of the growing confidence in his game.

"I think I'm in that zone. I know Hossa and Toews emphasize holding on to the puck and not just to throw it away when you're pressured," Bickell said. "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."

And what of Hjalmarsson? Taking Keith's spot on the top pairing with Brent Seabrook, the Swedish blueliner played his most minutes of the playoffs (24:57) while tallying two assists. His effort was representative of an entire team stepping up in a crucial game.

"I think our whole team game was where we were hoping to be last game," Quenneville said. "But I thought we got contributions across the board, especially the guys that logged a lot of minutes down there. [They] did a real good job of having a good gap, getting some clears, strong in front of the net. The defense in front of [Crawford] combined to do an outstanding job. Tough team to shut down in the third. They deserve a lot of credit."

The Kings were willing, but the beat-up roster that's hanging by bandages doesn't appear to have a whole lot left in the tank. And now they have to go to Chicago sporting a 1-7 road record with their season hanging in the balance Saturday night.

"We play the same game whether we're at home or on the road, and we haven't played our game yet," Kings blueliner Drew Doughty said. "This is our opportunity to finally show Chicago the way the L.A. Kings can play, and we're going to have to do it in their rink."

You don't ever want to count out these Kings, not with the way they've picked themselves off the mat time and time again in these playoffs.

But this one smells like a done deal, Game 4 on Thursday night providing the critical turning point of the series.