- Scott Burnside, NHL
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CHICAGO -- It shouldn't surprise anyone that the Western Conference finals are heading to the West Coast all knotted up at one game apiece.
Two deep, talented, experienced teams shot through with Stanley Cup understanding going toe-to-toe; why wouldn't it be all tied up?
But what has added some unexpected texture to this series is the manner in which the Los Angeles Kings tied this series in Game 2 -- a kind of microcosm of their never-say-die, backs-against-the-wall mentality throughout this topsy-turvy playoff year -- and what it might mean for both the Kings and the Blackhawks.
Because here's the thing: For most of Wednesday's shocking 6-2 Kings victory, a victory that included a five-goal third period, this had all the markings of yet another patented Chicago home victory.
The Blackhawks were faster, more determined and more opportunistic in building a 2-0 lead and keeping the Kings on their heels through most of the first two periods.
In counterpoint, the Kings looked weary, as though the extra off day between Games 1 and 2 had sapped their strength instead of rejuvenating them after two straight seven-game series. The Blackhawks' skilled, speedy defense constantly opened up scoring lanes with heady stretch passes.
The normally responsible Kings were victimized by odd-man rush after odd-man rush, often resorting to clutching and grabbing at the Hawks to try to slow them down.
Indeed, the Kings were assessed four minor penalties in the first period, all attributable to being unable to deal with the Blackhawks' pace.
Then, early in the second period, a defensive breakdown by the Kings on a Chicago line change allowed Ben Smith to step behind the Kings defense and snap a shot past Los Angeles netminder Jonathan Quick to make it 2-0.
And who knows:
If Marian Hossa scores on a dangerous 3-on-2 in the second period, or Brent Seabrook, who was set up beautifully on a 2-on-1 by Kris Versteeg but was denied by a great arm save by Quick, finds the back of the net, or Patrick Kane makes good on a great chance on an ugly turnover in the Kings' zone, the narrative could completely different.
But it didn't go that way, and with time running out in the second period, it was veteran Mike Richards' making a terrific play to get a puck to the front of the net, where it caromed off Justin Williams' skate and into the net to make it 2-1 with 1:46 left in the second.
"There's a little bit of, you know, we can't give up that many [chances] again. Quickie had a couple of big saves for us, but we need him to. But at the same time, yeah, second period we knew we gave up too many 3-on-2s, 4-on-2s, and maybe we got lucky a little bit there, but hey, that's part of the game, too."
Between the second and third, the Kings talked about the good things they could do and had done, and then came out and embarrassed the Blackhawks with five unanswered goals in the last frame.
"I think we can rally around each other," Stoll said. "Second intermission, we did that. We rallied around each other, we brought everybody together, we said a lot of good things and we went out with kind of the attitude that we weren't going to be denied. That was honestly the attitude. We got maybe lucky to get a couple of calls and get us on the power play, but that's the way the game is you've got to take advantage of those opportunities."
The Kings became the first road team to earn a victory in the United Center this postseason.
As though the first two periods hadn't existed -- or more to the point, as though the Kings realized how wildly fortunate they were to still be in the hunt -- Los Angeles emerged in the third as the same team that would not be put down by the San Jose Sharks or the Anaheim Ducks in the previous two rounds.
Captain Dustin Brown, who has been revitalized in these playoffs, described the win in almost mystical terms given the Hawks' dominance at home in general over the past two playoff years, and specifically over the Kings.
"I think this is a huge game for our approach, I guess, our psyche. Kind of like slaying the mythical dragon," Brown said. "We've been dominated by this team over the last couple of years. To come in here and get a win in their building with the type of home record they have, I think gives us a boost in confidence."
The Kings' five third-period goals tied a franchise record, and it was the first time it had happened since 1993, when the Kings advanced to their first Stanley Cup final, against Montreal. Jeff Carter's four-point third (three goals, one assist) tied an NHL record.
"We just don't give up. We have a lot of heart, we have a lot of will. As a team we have such great chemistry on and off the ice that when we get put in those positions we believe in every single one of each other. We believe we can come back, we believe we can win the game. Tonight, we showed that," said Drew Doughty, whose point shot on the power play was deflected by Carter to tie the score just 1:37 into the third period.
The Chicago Blackhawks knew the backstory of how the Kings got to this point in the playoffs: erasing a 3-0 series deficit against the Sharks, losing three in a row to the Ducks before stealing a second Game 7 on the road.
But seeing up close and personal just how much pushback exists in that Kings locker room was a jarring reminder that this team is a much different, more dangerous version of the Kings than the one the Hawks dispatched in five games in the conference final a year ago.
"Disappointing because we just didn't find a way to keep playing the way we did in the first and second," offered captain Jonathan Toews. "Unfortunate we couldn't bring the effort the same way. Guess we got what we deserved.
"They're going to be even better in their own building. Have to expect that. We have to reflect on what just happened and be ready to raise our own level of play.
"We're ticked off we let one slip away from us in our own building, but we can't dwell on it too much. We have to focus on what we can do better and make sure we're ready to play a more complete game."
The series now shifts to Los Angeles with Game 3 set for Saturday. That means the extra day off will be filled with questions and stories about, not how the Blackhawks seized the moment and took a 2-0 series lead, but rather how very quickly this Kings team can exploit a crack in an opposing team's armor and bring it to its knees.
"I don't know," Kings rookie winger Tanner Pearson said after a two-assist third period, "I've said it over and over: These guys don't like to lose. And I think [that] just translates throughout the team and everyone wants to move on to that next step, and we're doing everything we can to get that."
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