In a battle pitting the last two Stanley Cup champions, the Chicago Blackhawks were expecting a long, drawn-out war of attrition.
That's exactly what they got.
Jeff Carter netted a hat trick in the third period and Jonathan Quick made saves when they counted, as the Los Angeles Kings came back from a two-goal deficit to earn a 6-2 win over the Blackhawks in Game 2 of their Western Conference finals series.
The Kings spent most of the first two periods stonewalled by Corey Crawford. Down 2-0 and struggling to get anything going, it looked like Los Angeles would return home with its backs firmly planted against the wall.
But then Justin Williams gave the Kings a glimmer of hope to end the second period and frustrating penalties from the Blackhawks opened the door for Carter and Jake Muzzin. The pair scored quick power-play goals to put Los Angeles ahead. Tyler Toffoli and Carter capped off the comeback barrage with goals to put Chicago away for good.
The comeback critically ties the best-of-seven series at 1-1. The two sides will reconvene Saturday night at Staples Center, where Chicago will go back to the drawing board after so nearly taking a stranglehold of the entire series.
Crawford's third-period misery will overshadow what was on pace to be a brilliant performance. With the Kings dominating faceoffs and employing aggressive overall strategy, Crawford found himself the final line of defense against solid attacks. He did not allow a goal until the 18:14 mark of the second period, when a red-hot Williams was set up perfectly by Mike Richards and Dwight King.
As has been typical throughout the postseason, though, when the dam broke for Crawford, it exploded. An interference call on Brandon Bollig early in the third period was followed by Carter's goal just 23 seconds later. Muzzin needed only a little more than a minute after the Blackhawks had too many men on the ice—an inexplicable error that arguably changed the game's trajectory.
This nothing new for Crawford, who, in the last two years, has established himself as the litmus test for a win and loss for Chicago.
The numbers don't lie. When Crawford is on his game, the Blackhawks are almost unbeatable. In games he's allowed three or fewer goals, Chicago is 9-0 this postseason. When the fourth goal goes through, the Blackhawks have lost all five times.
It had been nearly two full weeks since Crawford has even allowed multiple goals in the same game—let alone gone above three. On Wednesday, he allowed three shots to go past him in a seven-minute span.
That provides a stark contrast to Quick, whose rocky start was overshadowed by a stellar finish. Nick Leddy took advantage of a Willie Mitchell cross-checking penalty to score his first postseason goal late in the first period, and Ben Smith added another 1:40 into the second.
So brilliant during the Kings' 2012 Stanley Cup run, Quick has been the weak link for most of the spring. He has only one shutout and his struggles have played a large part in Los Angeles stretching series against San Jose and Anaheim to seven games.
“Quickie is pretty hard on himself,” Drew Doughty told reporters before Game 2. “He takes the blame for every single goal. If we lose, he’s going to be upset after the game. He’s very emotional. He’s so competitive that he never gives up. He wants to win so bad, but the next day he’s calm, cool and collected like usual.”
The Blackhawks emphasized havoc in front of the net in Game 1, putting bodies in Quick's way to impede his vision. Los Angeles did a much better job of getting the attack out of the way in Game 2. He made 23 saves on 25 attempts in what the Kings hope will be a sign of things to come.
While a battle between both attacks, the old saying goes hot goaltending shapes the Stanley Cup playoff picture. The Kings have often won in spite of Quick during these playoffs, pulling off almost-hysterical in-series comebacks to just stay alive.
Wednesday was another example. For two periods, Los Angeles looked dead in the water. The Blackhawks, a talent-laden roster seemingly peaking at the right time, were on the precipice of running through them. Crawford was impenetrable, the Blackhawks were scoring at opportune times and a roaring United Center was giving meaning to home-ice advantage.
Then it all stopped on a dime.
The Kings are now licking their wounds and looking in-house for blame, first probably at Crawford for falling apart late and then at themselves for the mistakes that left him shorthanded to begin with.
The defending champs have responded well to adversity before. They were down 2-0 to the St. Louis Blues in Round 1 and the Minnesota Wild pushed them to a 2-2 tie before. The difference is Chicago was able to return home both times in those series. Going to Staples Center for Games 3 and 4 will be their greatest test of the postseason—and both previous series saw the Blackhawks lose two straight games.
There are only so many chances to put away elite competition. The score says 6-2, but all involved know the outcome was one or two plays away from being totally different.
Instead, we get a Kings comeback that may have changed the entire outlook of the series.
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