NHL takeaways: Hawks survive 2OT thriller … now for the hard part
Another blown two-goal lead. An awful go-ahead goal allowed by their goaltender. A shortened bench, two overtimes and an eight-minute overtime stretch without a whistle.
Now comes the hard part for the Chicago Blackhawks. They have to win in Los Angeles after staying alive with a breathtaking 5-4 double-overtime win over the Kings in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final on Wednesday at United Center.
The ‘Hawks came with pace and skill — their greatest assets — forcing the play early and jumping to a 3-1 lead. But L.A. countered as it has this entire series, eventually taking a 4-3 lead early in the second period on goals from Dustin Brown and Tanner Pearson before Chicago’s Ben Smith tied it to force the frantic finish.
It doesn’t get any better than the first overtime. The neutral zone was a blur on the screen of end-to-end action, with both teams trading great chances and both goalies prolonging the drama. How crazy was the pace? According to NBC Sports Network, the 20-minute first overtime took just 26:45 of real time to complete.
"When they had the whistle there, basically the timeout in the first overtime there, I don’t know how many minutes and seconds, but it was just like it was a ‘wow’ factor," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "The pace was unbelievable."
When the game finally reached its crescendo 2:04 into the second overtime, it was the Blackhawks’ best player in this game setting up the most unlikely of heroes. Forward Brandon Saad, just 21 years old, collected his third point of the night by feeding slow-footed center Michal Handzus, who somehow came wide open in the slot due to a blown Kings coverage and buried a backhander.
Playoff hockey in the stacked Western Conference: There is nothing comparable.
PLAY OF THE DAY
Handzus’ game-winner: Michal Handzus had a hard time staying in the ‘Hawks lineup this season. He is slow and he is old (37) in NHL years. There are many in Chicago who believe he is the greatest problem with this forward group, a giant hole at the second-line center position that prevents talented wing Patrick Kane from doing even more. But Handzus has been a key penalty killer for Chicago in the postseason, and on Wednesday he kept the Blackhawks season alive with the game-winner early in the second overtime. Handzus deked goalie Jonathan Quick once and set off pandemonium when his backhand found the upper half of the net.
Ben Smith gets the Hawks even: Chicago had blown a 3-1 lead and L.A. had taken a 4-3 lead to the locker room after two periods on an absolutely awful goal that had Chicago goalie Corey Crawford muttering to himself. The season was hanging by a thread until Smith went hard to the net and banged home a rebound of Brandon Saad’s shot just 1:17 into the third period to pull the Hawks even at 4-4.
1. LW Brandon Saad, Chicago. Saad had a goal and two assists, including the primary helper on the game-winner. Saad, 21, is still on an entry-level deal in which he makes $764,167. Chicago has another big pay-day coming.
2. RW Patrick Kane, Chicago: It’s not often a guy with four assists gets the second star, but as brilliant as Kane was, Saad was doing it at both ends. Still, it was vital to get Kane going in this series. Before Wednesday, he had just one point against L.A.
3. C Andrew Shaw, Chicago: Shaw had two assists and gave the Hawks the second-line spark they’ve been missing when he jumped between Saad and Kane for a good chunk of the game.
Chicago 5, Los Angeles 4 (2OT)
Series: Los Angeles leads, 3-2
Key stat: Since winning Game 5 against Philadelphia in the 2010 Stanley Cup Final, Chicago is 10-0 in Game 5s of playoff series.
Key player: RW Dustin Brown, Los Angeles. He got lost in the loss, but Brown had a goal, an assist, eight hits and played the pest role to perfection, drawing a penalty on defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson.
What we learned: There is a beating heart in the defending champs after all. Chicago came out flying to grab an early 3-1 lead, but even when that disappeared, the ‘Hawks dug deep, found an extra gear and willed their way to Game 6 with a fast, controlled, gutsy performance. Along the way, they may have finally discovered the second line they’ve been looking for. With Andrew Shaw centering Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad, the two dormant wings finally found their groove, accounting for seven points. That should be a scary sign for Kings coach Darryl Sutter, who had an easier time when the game plan was just about corralling Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp. The problem for Chicago is two-fold. The ‘Hawks shortened their bench by two forwards, barely playing wings Brandon Bollig and Kris Versteeg. That could catch up to them in L.A. against a team that rolls four lines with regularity. The other concern is that goalie Corey Crawford still hasn’t played a strong, complete game since Game 1. Crawford was strong in the third period and overtimes, but had he made a couple saves earlier, like his counterpart did, it might never have reached that stage. L.A. still looks like the deeper team and the better team, but the Kings don’t want to let the ‘Hawks book a trip back to Chicago with a win in Game 6. Regardless of the Kings’ Game 7 magic in this postseason, there is no venue more daunting than United Center.
Next game: Friday at Los Angeles, 9 p.m. EST
Remember when the second round got off to a dull start and it looked we might have a couple quick series after an electrifying Round 1? The conference finals were shaping up that way until Montreal and Chicago staved off elimination. But winning at home is one thing; winning Game 6 in the opponent’s building will be a much taller task. If the Habs and ‘Hawks can pull it off, what a weekend we’ll have to set the table for the Stanley Cup Final.