After winning two straight games against the Los Angeles Kings to deadlock the NHL Western Conference Final at three games apiece, the Chicago Blackhawks must make a strong effort to keep three words at the forefront of their minds before the puck drops on Sunday night for Game 7:
Nothing has changed.
The Blackhawks still have no choice but to win. The team’s back is still against the wall. Their skill players, their grinders and their goaltender still have to play with all the aggressiveness of knowing that there’s no tomorrow because if they don’t win Game 7—there won’t be.
On the other end of the ice, there’s a huge disparity between the Kings of Game 6 and Game 7.
The team that has been ever-so-resilient in these 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs has now experienced a discourteous rebound against them. After coming back from a 0-3 deficit against the San Jose Sharks in Round 1 and a 2-3 deficit against the Anaheim Ducks in Round 2, the Kings have squandered a commanding series lead of their own.
They’ve had opportunities to put the Blackhawks away. The Kings entered the third period of Game 5 with a one goal lead, but less than two minutes in, 'Hawks winger Ben Smith made certain that they took no comfort in that.
In Game 6, the Kings rallied from a one goal deficit to take the lead midway through the third period—only to give the lead back and allow the 'Hawks to even the series with a 4-3 win.
You can opine that the Kings beat themselves in Games 5 and 6, but the 'Hawks have had something that the Kings did not have leading up to Game 7—desperation.
Guess what? The Kings have that desperation now, and they have been awfully good in this position.
No Game 7 in which the Kings have played this postseason has been close. They have outscored their opponents 11-3, winning each clincher by four goals. And as it will be with the Blackhawks, the Kings won both of those games on the road.
Game 7 against the Blackhawks represents a unique challenge for the Kings—it is the first time this postseason that they are not carrying the momentum into Game 7.
It was the Kings storming back from series deficits in Rounds 1 and 2, but as the Blackhawks have demonstrated in this series, and as the Kings had in the first two rounds, desperation often trumps momentum.
“I don’t think we played enough desperate hockey these last two games and I think that’s kind of why we lost both of them,” said a humble but motivated Drew Doughty after the Kings’ Game 6 loss. “It’s about time that we get to that type of game that the LA Kings play.” (h/t LAKingsInsider.com)
If you're the Chicago Blackhawks, that should almost register as a threat.
The Los Angeles Kings were incredibly dominant in Games 3 and 4 at home.
They suffocated the Blackhawks and got sticks and bodies in every shooting and passing lane imaginable. Whenever the puck was loose, the Kings’ players hustled to it. They had plenty of support on the forecheck. They won battles. They played “that type of game that the LA Kings play.”
The Kings stayed on top of the Blackhawks in Games 5 and 6, but the Hawks were far more motivated to win. Both games were incredibly close, but the Hawks’ players absorbed hits and kept their feet moving.
They rediscovered that that fast-paced, puck possession brand of Blackhawks hockey does work against the Kings—as long as they stay motivated and hustle.
"I don’t think anything motivates you like having your back against the wall, potentially walking into a game where your season might end," Jonathan Toews told CSN Chicago's Tracey Myers after Game 6. "I think every single guy in this room thinks about that, lets it sink in a little bit and we realize how great this opportunity is."
The Blackhawks should enter the United Center in Chicago on Sunday well aware of their accomplishment. They should be excited to give their fans the opportunity to advance to the Stanley Cup Final on home ice for the second straight year.
But the good feelings of tying the series have to evaporate along with every win and loss they’ve posted so far.
The Western Conference Final is now a best-of-one series, and the Blackhawks will have to play with every ounce of effort they have left if they want to beat the Kings on Sunday.