Los Angeles Kings vs. Chicago Blackhawks Game 5: Keys for Each Team
The tables have turned.
After falling behind, 0-3, in their first-round series against the San Jose Sharks and 2-3 in their second-round series against the Anaheim Ducks, the Los Angeles Kings have hopped into the driver's seat with a 3-1 series lead over the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2014 Western Conference Final.
The Kings have been virtually unstoppable since the third period of Game 2, beating the Blackhawks in every zone and every statistical category.
The 'Hawks return home to United Center for a do-or-die Game 5 on Friday. Will the defending champions keep their hopes for a Stanley Cup repeat alive?
Here's a look at the keys to victory for both teams in Game 5.
Key for Los Angeles: Play Like It's Game 7
When Los Angeles was down 0-1 in this series, I suggested that if the Kings hoped to come back, they'd need to "manufacture the cocky urgency they've shown in their elimination games—stat."
That's exactly what happened. Los Angeles was able to use a lucky Justin Williams goal near the end of the second period of Game 2 to flip the series entirely in its favor.
Now, can they keep applying the same pressure?
Los Angeles has had just one other two-game lead in these playoffs. After winning their first two games against the Anaheim Ducks in Round 2, they went to sleep for three games and nearly let rookie goalie John Gibson sweep them out of the postseason.
If the Kings are even slightly overconfident in Game 5, the Blackhawks will be able to exploit that trait to wedge themselves back into this series. A 3-1 series lead isn't the series stranglehold it once was. Los Angeles should know.
Key for Chicago: Learn from the Kings' Example
No team has been more resilient in the 2014 postseason than Chicago's opponent, and the Blackhawks will face their first elimination game of the year on Wednesday.
Remember back in Round 1, when the Kings were on track to be the first team eliminated from the playoffs after they lost their first three games to the Sharks? They looked like a defensive disaster.
The defensive breakdowns and penalty-kill woes of the 'Hawks during the last three games seem similarly uncharacteristic. They're not the usual style at all for a team that boasts a 2013 Selke Trophy winner in Jonathan Toews—who's nominated again this year—and a 2010 Norris Trophy winner in Duncan Keith, who's a second-time finalist this season.
The 2013 Stanley Cup champs recovered from a 3-1 deficit to defeat the Detroit Red Wings in the second round last year. With that memory in mind, Keith told Shawn Roarke of NHL.com that his group understands that the challenges are part of the package:
It wouldn't be worth winning the Stanley Cup without going through adversity. I don't think any team that gets this far or ends up winning it, goes through without having to deal with adversity, and this is our chance to do it.
Key for Los Angeles: Quick Stays Strong
Jonathan Quick has done the job against the Blackhawks so far, but he can still tap into another gear if it's needed.
Quick has given up 46 goals in 18 playoff games this year for a moderate 2.68 goals-against average. But 16 of those goals came in the Kings' first three games of the playoffs, against San Jose.
Subtract those, and you're left with 30 goals in the other 15 games—a mere two goals a game. That puts Quick right up with playoff leader Henrik Lundqvist.
The Blackhawks have scored 10 goals on Quick in four games so far. Decent production, but it's not enough to combat what Los Angeles has been doing at the other end of the ice. Two of those goals have also come in garbage time, when a win was out of reach late in Games 3 and 4.
If the 'Hawks are able to press the Kings in Game 5, Quick will need to channel the form he's shown during Los Angeles' elimination games. He gave up just two goals to the Sharks in the last three games of Round 1, then he allowed the Ducks only three goals in two games when the second-round series was on the line.
If the Blackhawks scorers finally start to feel their oats in Game 5, big saves by Quick could mean the difference between a win and a loss for Los Angeles.
Key for Chicago: Crawford Plays Hero
As I discussed coming into this series, the Chicago Blackhawks' Corey Crawford led all goaltenders through the first two rounds of the playoffs, with a 1.97 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage.
Crawford's playoff numbers have now dropped to 2.34 and .918, respectively, after giving up 14 goals in four games to Los Angeles. The Blackhawks have also allowed two empty-netters.
There's no Plan B for the 'Hawks in net: Crawford has played every minute of postseason action for Chicago since Antti Niemi left after winning the Stanley Cup in 2010.
Crawford isn't the reason that the Blackhawks' backs are suddenly against the wall—most of the Kings' goals have come from breakdowns that have given the netminder little chance.
Chicago's skaters will almost certainly play better in Game 5, but they may need an otherworldly performance from Crawford to back them up if they hope to send the series back to Los Angeles for Game 6 on Friday.
Key for Los Angeles: Keep Winning Special Teams Battles
Two relatively evenly matched teams have been polar opposites on the power play and penalty kill in this series.
The Kings have been tearing it up with the man advantage over the last three games with five goals on 10 power-play opportunities—an astronomical 50 percent conversion rate. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles penalty kill has limited the Blackhawks to just one power-play goal in 11 chances in the last three games and nothing in Games 3 or 4.
Los Angeles has yet to lose a game in these playoffs when it has shut down its opponents' power play, and that stat has held true so far against Chicago. If L.A. can dominate Game 5 once again with its special teams, the Kings will be punching their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final.
Key for Chicago: Play Desperate
Patrick Kane, did you expect to be facing elimination against a team that you easily dispatched last year on your way to the Stanley Cup?
He said, Shawn Roarke of NHL.com, "I think coming into this series you'd be lying if we thought we'd be in this position, but it happens and we've got no one to blame but ourselves. We're the only ones that are going to get ourselves out of it, so might as well start with Game 5 in Chicago."
Kane and Jonathan Toews have scored seven of the Hawks' 10 game-winning goals between them so far in these playoffs. Toews has three goals and an assist against the Kings, but Kane has registered just a single assist in the series. The dynamic duo needs to dial up a patented clutch performance to keep Chicago alive in the playoffs.
Here are coach Joel Quenneville's words after his team rebounded from a 3-1 deficit to beat Detroit in 2013, from Corey Masisak of NHL.com: "I think winning here in Game 5 got us excited again and got the momentum back. The last two games were tightly fought and amazing games. Finding a way to win that big third period the other night and finding a way to win tonight as well."
The Blackhawks weren't as strong in the regular season this year as they were during their record-setting run in 2013, but they are the defending champions and should be able to draw from a deep reservoir of confidence.
One game at a time.