LOS ANGELES—Game 7.
It is magic in any sport, and it is a proper climax to this electric series of heavyweight hockey powers.
That might not fly here, for the amazing Blackhawks again found a way Friday night in the Staples Center, stunning the Los Angeles Kings, 4-3, with two goals in the closing 8:26 to remain defending Stanley Cup champions, just when it appeared they might be dethroned.
Yet, even Darryl Sutter, the bereaved coach, intimated that this Western Conference Final probably deserved such a resolution. His Kings have won two Games 7 thus far—in San Jose and Anaheim—but when asked whether this development constituted high-wire business as usual, he corrected the interrogator.
“Third round, better opponent,” he said, adding that the tournament has showcased great plays by great players.
One of his great players, Drew Doughty, took over the early portion of the third period by scoring to tie it, 2-2, then setting up a power-play marker by Alec Martinez. Then, Patrick Kane, the diminutive dynamo whose playoff beard is turning prematurely orange, took the baton and orchestrated another remarkable triumph by a team as desperate to stay alive as the Kings were anxious to stay home and prepare for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final Wednesday night.
For the core of young veterans who have rejuvenated the Blackhawks—Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Patrick Sharp and Kane—this was the 93rd postseason game since the franchise revisited relevance in 2009. At times, it feels as though these men have written the book and are now merely watching the movie. They know how the drama will end; they just hang around to sort out the particulars of the adaptation.
Friday night, it was Kane who produced and directed. He choreographed a brilliant pass on the tape for Keith, who as if operating with ESP, stepped into the play and launched the tying goal past Jonathan Quick at 11:34. Then Kane, who worked double shifts like he needs the money, took a feed from new regular linemate Brandon Saad, via Niklas Hjalmarsson and drilled the winner at 16:15.
“When our top guys play that way, it gives the rest of us energy,” praised Ben Smith. He’s repeatedly referred to as “unsung,” but he becoming sung with regularity. After Kane’s first goal on the first successful Blackhawks road power play in eons forged a 1-1 tie, Smith quickly followed with a second effort that banked in off Quick’s skate.
That occurred early in the middle period, after which Corey Crawford found himself under siege. Flurries, one-timers, whatever. The Kings crashed the net, but failed to find it. He was splendid, and when Martinez wrapped around him only to miss a yawning cage, a loud audience gasped in disbelief. In fact, as Crawford related afterward, he was unable to adjust because he was being interfered with while Johnny Oduya collapsed on the shooter.
A scrum on Quick’s porch punctuated the second period. As ten skaters debated, he left the argument and headed toward the locker room. Crawford observed near his bench. The two masked men bumped, and Crawford rattled his gloves like he was willing to shed them for a reason. As if the goalkeepers weren’t busy enough.
Both sides talked about avoiding a track meet similar to Game 5, but Game 6 was absolutely high octane. Another “wow factor,” to borrow from Joel Quenneville, who hailed his group and its special individuals, such as Kane.
Big picture. The National Hockey League can wear this postseason as a badge. The three largest markets in the United States—Chicago, New York and Los Angeles—play on while Montreal, the bank of Canada, recently departed. But the Blackhawks, Rangers, Kings and Canadiens did not get this far by spending more because they can’t. A hard salary cap disallows unbalanced payrolls. It does not, however, preclude spending smarter and running superior organizations, top to bottom.
The Blackhawks and Kings will board charter planes Saturday morning while the Clarence Campbell Bowl will fly commercial. It was in Chicago Wednesday, just in case Los Angeles clinched the Western Conference title. It was transported to the Staples Center for Friday night, if necessary. But the still defending champions aren’t too keen on ceremonies unless they are involved, so they found a way to wrest another victory from a disciplined foe that is usually poison to deal with when it seizes a lead.
Seems like ages ago when Ken Hitchcock, head coach of the St. Louis Blues, saluted the “resolve” of the Blackhawks, even as they dropped the first two games of the opening series before running the table. Actually, it was only a few weeks ago, but nothing has changed.
Game 7 in the United Center. Doing anything Sunday night?