Through the first two rounds of the 2013-14 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs, the Chicago Blackhawks appeared to be a team with the depth needed to repeat as champions. Forwards not named Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were doing a lot of heavy lifting—Marian Hossa still leads the 'Hawks in points—while Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith were contributing from the blue line.
That depth has dried up against the Los Angeles Kings, and Chicago's second line in particular has struggled to produce anything other than bad possession numbers. That problem wouldn't be so glaring if the Kings weren't getting so much out of their second line.
The trio of Jeff Carter, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson has become the toast of the NHL over the last week. Carter in particular has been a devastating force in the offensive zone. A force that the 'Hawks haven't been able to come up with an answer for.
No one is realistically expecting Kane, Michal Handzus or Patrick Sharp to come up with seven points in less than 60 minutes of game time, but they need to be better if Chicago hopes to get back into this series.
The shots are there for Kane and Sharp—they combined for seven in the 4-3 loss in Game 3 on Saturday—but the quality hasn't been good enough. Whenever Carter or Toffoli gets a chance, it seems to be of the grade-a variety. They're finishing and look dangerous with the puck during every shift. You don't get the same vibe from Chicago's second line.
Regardless of how one tries to spin it, having Handzus butting up against Carter isn't a recipe for success. The former Columbus Blue Jacket-turned-playoff-all-star has been too dynamic, and the sluggish Handzus can't contain him.
That was evident on Carter's goal in the first period. Handzus was (apparently) dazed by the action behind Corey Crawford, because he forgot that his job is to cover No. 77 when he sets up in front while waiting for an easy tap-in.
Handzus had been the scapegoat for Chicago's second-line struggles through the first two games of the series, and head coach Joel Quenneville had seen enough by the third period of Game 3. He inserted Ben Smith onto the line, which is a tactic that the bench boss used in the earlier rounds when he wanted to see more speed out of the group.
Can the 'Hawks honestly hope for better results from a Smith-Carter matchup, though? The one glaring hole on Chicago's roster since the offseason has been the No. 2 center spot. That was the case back in October, and it's going to still be the case in June—if the Blackhawks can get that far.
Kane, Sharp and whoever Quenneville uses as the center must get going because Toews is already doing everything in his power to keep this series close. The captain of the 'Hawks scored twice in Game 3, but the second line of the Kings negated any forward motion created by No. 19's beautiful short-handed tally by converting 50 seconds later.
While Carter didn't net the goal himself, his blind backhand pass found Slava Voynov in the slot, and the defenseman made no mistake with the shot.
Los Angeles' second line wasn't done putting its fingerprints all over the victory, though. Carter's tap-in in the second period came at a time when the Kings weren't generating much on offense. L.A. grabbed a monster game-tying goal when it looked like the 'Hawks were poised to break the contest open, and that was thanks to hard work by the second line.
More than five minutes passed before the Kings had another shot on goal, but it was Toffoli's turn to bury a Carter pass to give the Kings a 3-2 lead in the latter stages of the second period.
These are big-moment goals—timely tallies that change the complexion of a game. Sharp and Kane are still looking for their first important goals of the Western Conference Final. The former was outstanding in the first round against the St. Louis Blues, while Kane put on a show in Round 2, but their magic has evaporated.
It's not like they aren't getting their chances. Sharp hasn't had a lot of puck luck through the first three games of this series, and that might be changing after he slipped one by Jonathan Quick in the too-little-too-late stages of Game 3.
That goal only matters in the scheme of things if it ignites the four-time 30-goal scorer for Game 4. Sharp has the reputation as a streaky shooter, so perhaps this is a positive for the 'Hawks as they approach a must-win contest on Monday night. If it's not a sign of better things to come, then Chicago's chances of defending its championship all but vanish.
All statistics appear courtesy of NHL.com.