LOS ANGELES -- For the better part of five days, the Chicago Blackhawks have been looking for answers to why the Los Angeles Kings have been the better team in the Western Conference Final since the third period of Game 2.
The Blackhawks advanced several theories, suggesting it stemmed from a lack of discipline on their part, as well the need to win more of the 50-50 battles which define a series. They dismissed others, insisting fatigue was not an issue and denying the suggestion Los Angeles was the faster team.
Monday, during Game 4 at Staples Center, the answer was right in front of their faces after absorbing a 5-2 loss to the Kings and falling behind 3-1 in the best-of-7 series.
"Credit that team, they're a good team," Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said. "But we know we've got more."
Chicago, the defending Stanley Cup champion, faces elimination because the Kings have been, by far, the better team for the past 140 minutes of game play, turning a 1-0 series deficit into a 3-1 stranglehold by outscoring the defensively sound Blackhawks 15-5 during that stretch.
"We know what we have in here and we know what we're capable of," Kings defenseman Jake Muzzin said. "We believe in our guys and when we play good hockey, it's good enough."
Good enough to leave the Blackhawks in desperate straits.
"Yeah, it's not a good position to be in," Chicago forward Patrick Kane said. "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."
Game 5 is Wednesday at United Center (8 p.m., NBCSN, RDS, CBC).
In the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Blackhawks allowed 13 goals to the St. Louis Blues in a six-game series which had four games decided in overtime. In the next round, Chicago allowed 13 goals in six games against the Minnesota Wild. The Kings broke the 13-goal barrier in seven periods of domination.
Heading into Game 4, the Blackhawks argued they could claw back into this series by winning the individual battles. In the first period Monday, Chicago lost every battle and fell behind 3-0 after 16 minutes. It was a knockout blow from which the Blackhawks could not rise on this night.
"It seemed like they capitalized on any little chance that they had," Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith said.
Muzzin scored the first goal on the power play after Chicago forward Marian Hossa ran into goalie Jonathan Quick for an undisciplined penalty. Muzzin was able to muscle his point shot in because Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford never saw it, screened completely by unmarked forward Jeff Carter.
The second goal came when Anze Kopitar, arguably the best forward in this series, claimed a turnover and put a pass right on the stick of Marian Gaborik, who stood uncontested a mere foot from the top of the crease and redirected the puck past Crawford.
It was two goals on four shots for the Kings and the beginnings of an insurmountable hole for the Blackhawks.
"It was a tough situation we put ourselves in," Toews said. "We took some penalties and we made some mistakes, couldn't kill them off. It's an uphill battle after that."
A battle made much worse when Sharp took a roughing penalty 180 feet from his own net, striking out in retaliation against Jarret Stoll in the corner. Fifty-two seconds after sitting in the box, he was released when Dustin Brown took a pass from Justin Williams and put it into the half-empty net. Again, the Blackhawks had no body on the low man in the slot. At that point, Los Angeles had scored on five of the past seven penalties taken by Chicago.
Midway through the second period, defenseman Drew Doughty scored from the point. This time it was not one Kings player, but two, harassing Crawford's vision. Just like that, it was 4-0. The rest of the game was thrust and parry, although the Blackhawks pushed forward desperately looking for offense while the Kings settled into a more passive defensive game.
It wasn't just on the goal-scoring plays where the Blackhawks were losing the battles. It was all over the ice. Chicago struggled to gain zone entry, but was stood up repeatedly at the blue line. The Blackhawks were dominated in the faceoff circle, losing 33 of 57. Stoll went 16-8 on draws, including an 11-4 mark against Toews. The Blackhawks didn't get pucks through to Quick, pulling the trigger too quickly in many cases and not waiting for shooting lanes to open. Los Angeles blocked 23 shots. Chicago missed the net on 15 other shots, meaning 21 of 58 shot attempts forced a save.
Chicago attempted to take some solace out of a late-closing kick, punctuated by goals from Brandon Saad and Bryan Bickell, trying to mine through it for hints of the level it must reach to solve these Kings.
The Blackhawks are champions for a reason. They don't quit. Last season, they erased a 3-1 deficit to the Detroit Red Wings en route to winning the Stanley Cup. They look across the ice and see a team which has suffered two three-game losing streaks in these playoffs and think they can pin a third three-game skid on the Kings.
They know the tide can turn in an instant. They still believe they can be the better team during the rest of this series. They just have to prove it on the ice now.
"Obviously, our backs are up against the wall and we've got nothing to lose now," Keith said. "We've got to win one hockey game and it's their job to close it out. Let's try to have fun with it. I think that will be good."