The Chicago Blackhawks let a golden opportunity slip through their fingers Tuesday night.
Once again, it was their golden boys who did most of the slipping.
The Blackhawks went into Los Angeles against an undermanned Kings team—no Mike Richards for the second consecutive game—that was struggling to put the puck in the net. They needed to pressure Jonathan Quick and use their speed and skill to wear down the Kings.
But it was not to be. The Blackhawks played passive hockey in the first 40 minutes, and they let the Kings find their game.
Justin Williams got the Kings on the board with an early goal, and that changed the mindset of the two teams. Slava Voynov turned the heat up considerably with a fluky, broken-stick goal in the second period.
Suddenly, the Kings were comfortable again. They had won their previous seven home playoff games, and they had a lead at home again. Dwight King's third-period goal locked up a 3-1 victory over the ho-hum Blackhawks.
While the Kings are breathing easier, the Blackhawks are asking themselves questions. The biggest: Why aren't Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane producing the way they did in the regular season?
Toews is the Blackhawks' best all-around player, Kane their most explosive, but reputations and past accomplishments don't matter in the playoffs. It's about putting the puck in the net.
Toews had 23 goals and 25 assists during the regular season, while Kane led the Blackhawks with 23 goals and 32 assists. Toews was a remarkable plus-28, while Kane was plus-11.
Through 15 postseason games, Kane has scored two goals and added eight assists while Toews has just one goal and six assists. Kane is plus-three, while Toews has a zero plus/minus rating. That's unacceptable.
We knew exactly the kind of game they were going to play and that they were going to have more confidence, more energy in their own building. We just didn't bring that same effort and that same pace. We know we have to be better than that in the next one.
But even considering that, we still hung in there and had our chance to even it up late in the game.
But that's not the whole story—Chicago's star-crossed leaders failed to do their job once again.
The Blackhawks have plenty of support from their supporting cast. Nobody is putting a bigger smile on head coach Joel Quenneville's face right now than Bryan Bickell, who scored the team's lone goal in Game 3 when he beat quick on a long-range wraparound late in the second period.
Bickell is normally a grinder who will go into the corners, battle for the puck and play hard-nosed defense. During the regular season, he scored nine goals and added 14 assists.
But in the playoffs, Bickell is going to the net and making plays. He has scored seven goals—one fewer than team leader Patrick Sharp—and also has two assists.
Bickell's goal was one of just 10 shots that the Blackhawks had in the first two periods. They would add 10 more shots in the third period, but they ultimately did not come close to putting severe pressure on the Kings' stellar goalie (Quick rebounded quite nicely with 19 saves on 20 shots after getting pulled in Game 2).
The Blackhawks did have one excellent chance in the late going, but it did not come off the stick of Toews or Kane. Instead, it was Bickell once again who gathered a rebound, put it on his forehand and fired one toward a small opening.
Quick used the inside of his blocker to blunt that shot.
Toews and Kane were both on the ice in the final minute-and-a-half when goalie Corey Crawford was pulled. Neither player was anywhere near the front of the net. Instead, both men were on the outside, trying to find the proper angle to feed a pass to a teammate who could have tied it up.
Kane usually does his best work once he gathers speed and cuts across the grain in the offensive zone, stickhandling in a dazzling manner. But when he tried that in the third period, Anze Kopitar took the puck away from him.
Toews often lives on the inside, taking elbows and other physical abuse in an effort to help his team score. He did a little of that in Game 3, but not enough.
It's getting to be the elephant in the room. The Blackhawks have won two playoff series, and they still have a lead in the Western Conference Final, but do they really have a chance to win the Stanley Cup if Toews and Kane continue to sputter?
The answer almost certainly is no. It's possible they might get by the win-at-home, lose-on-the-road Kings, but it's doubtful they could beat a fully functioning Eastern Conference power if Toews and Kane continue to play ineffectively.
The season is growing short. The Blackhawks are still in a good position, but they won't maintain it until "Captain Serious" and his top lieutenant score more goals.