LOS ANGELES — If there is anyone familiar with the situation the Chicago Blackhawks currently find themselves in, it’s the Los Angeles Kings.
Last year, four games into the series the Blackhawks held a 3-1 series lead. It took only five games to end the Kings’ season and their bid to repeat as the Stanley Cup Champions.
Now, nearly a year later, the defending champs find themselves on the verge of elimination at the hands of the Kings, who lead the Western Conference Finals 3-1 after a 5-2 win Monday night at Staples Center.
"Sometimes you have to lose again to get fire back," said Kings winger Justin Williams. "Losing a Game 5, we had the Cup and they knocked us out and took it."
The Kings jumped out to a 4-0 lead and never looked back. Chicago attempted a comeback but never quite had enough. Its most important player, Jonathan Toews, didn’t even get a shot off while its other heavy hitters were kept off the box score.
With goaltender Corey Crawford having vacated the net late in the third, sloppy possessions doomed them. Tanner Pearson’s empty-net goal locked up the win with less than two minutes to play.
"We made a few little mistakes and it was in the back of our net real quick," said Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith. "That can change a game pretty quick and then we’re playing catchup. I thought we did a good job overall but it’s tough to come back."
Special teams have played an integral role. The Kings are 8-0 when the penalty kill allows no power-play goals. In Game 3, penalties were limited to just three minors and the penalty-kill unit easily killed them all off.
The L.A. power-play unit went 2 for 3 as Jake Muzzin scored nine minutes into the game. Later in the first, with Crawford giving up half the net, Muzzin started a play that resulted in Dustin Brown exploiting the space Crawford left for the second power-play goal and a 3-0 lead.
"It just seems like they’re scoring different goals on their power play in different ways," Keith said.
"We’re looking for our power play to create that momentum," Muzzin said. "Not necessarily score a goal, but we’ve been fortunate to get pucks in."
Since falling into an 0-3 hole in San Jose, the Kings are 11-4 and have outscored opponents 53-30. The difference?
"I have no idea," deadpanned Muzzin.
Since Game 4 of the first round, the Kings flipped some sort of switch and have looked like a completely different team.
The 2013 edition of the Kings didn’t differ vastly from the 2014 edition but there were a few key faces misssing. Rookie Tyler Toffoli was showing promise, his linemate Tanner Pearson had yet to see any postseason ice time with the big club and the league’s leading playoff scorer Marian Gaborik was probably playing golf.
The biggest difference is in the two different teams that showed up this season: The one in the regular season that averaged 2.42 goals per game and the one in the postseason that’s scored 3.39 goals per game and even more if you throw out the first three games of the playoffs.
"You get a little confidence when you get one in and you want to continue building that," Muzzin said. "Scoring comes and goes, it’s huge to help out but to get the win is more important."
The Blackhawks came back from a 3-1 deficit last year against the Red Wings and Toews thinks he can instill a renewed sense of confidence in his dressing room.
But as Game 5 draws near, memories of last year’s Game 5 in Chicago have come flooding back. As Williams said, a loss is sometimes the most effective motivation.
"Last year stuck with me for a long time," Williams said. "Obviously that’s on our minds. Knowing that a team got the better of us, that doesn’t sit well with me."