This was a much easier series for the Los Angeles Kings before Patrick Kane started scoring.
For Game 5 of the Western Conference Final (a potential elimination game for Chicago), Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville shuffled his lines, placing Kane on a unit with Andrew Shaw and Brandon Saad. The result was a brilliant game for all three and four assists for Kane—this after the Chicago star had previously managed just a single helper in Games 1-4.
As we noted after that contest, the emergence of a second impactful line for the Blackhawks posed a formidable challenge for L.A. entering Game 6, a change to a script that had seen the Kings dominate the depth battles.
It was a challenge that Darryl Sutter and his team failed to meet.
Kane scored Chicago’s first goal, assisted on the tying goal halfway through the third period and then buried the winner with just under four minutes left in the contest. While both of the goals were strong plays, his best scoring moment for my money was the assist on Duncan Keith’s critical marker:
CBC’s panel after the game criticized the Los Angeles defence for respecting Kane too much, backing off and giving him space, and there was some definite merit to those comments. But on this particular play (against the Jake Muzzin/Drew Doughty pairing, rather than the Slava Voynov/Willie Mitchell duo he mostly saw) there was no gap problem—Muzzin tracked him basically all the way to the blue line and was hassling him the whole way, and Kane still managed to make a perfect pass to Keith.
Postmedia’s Cam Cole put it better than I would have, so I’ll just borrow his line:
Quenneville, talking about the game-winning marker, put it another way:
#Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville on Patrick Kane's winning goal: "He can get it done as good as anybody in the game."— Mark Potash (@MarkPotash) May 31, 2014
The Kings did their best, of course. While Sutter left the Mitchell/Voynov pair out against Kane, as he had in Game 5, he shifted the forwards assigned with the primary duty of shadowing him:
|Kings centre||Game 5||Game 6|
In Game 5, fully two-thirds of Kane’s shifts came against L.A.’s third and fourth lines. In Game 6, less than half did. The primary assignment shifted from the checking line, centered by Jarret Stoll, to the second line, centered by Jeff Carter.
It wasn’t enough to keep Kane from scoring, and while Kane occasionally had his difficult moments in the defensive zone (the coverage of Dustin Brown on Doughty’s goal left something to be desired), no team in the league wants to be trading chances with Kane at anything even approaching an even clip.
How to silence the Hawks’ second line is the most pressing problem on Sutter’s plate as the Kings head back to Chicago for Game 7. It’s interesting—perhaps even worthy of criticism—that he didn’t look for a hard forward match against Kane the way he has against Toews, and it’s certainly an option he should consider for the final game in the series.
There are others, but to some degree the coach has to trust they will take care of themselves. Jonathan Quick has been wretched in net, but Corey Crawford hasn’t been any better and Quick has blown hot and cold all postseason; there’s no telling how he’ll do in the next game.
As for “momentum," the Kings have shown in these playoffs that being down 3-0 to the Sharks or losing three in a row to Anaheim is no obstacle to winning every other game in the series, so it’s a non-issue.
Or, as SBNation blogger Andrew Lifland put it:
If momentum existed, that would be a worry. Fortunately for the Kings, it does not.— Andrew Lifland (@andrewlifland) May 31, 2014
Whatever problems the Kings have, the team has won three of the six games in this series, easily the best in the playoffs to date. Game 7 should be more of the same—a close battle between arguably the two best clubs in the NHL.
It should be quite a game.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report; follow him on Twitter for more of his work.