Sure, the Los Angeles Kings had delivered three straight haymakers with a run of three straight wins to take a stranglehold in this best-of-7 series, rocking the defending champions to the very limit of their endurance in the process.
When the puck dropped for Game 5, the Blackhawks had no goal other than to play their best game, something they believe they have not come close to doing yet in this series. It was as much about delivering a statement about who they are as an organization as it was about winning the game and getting the series back to Los Angeles for Game 6 on Friday.
In the end, they did both.
Yes, they won an instant classic with a 5-4 victory in double overtime, delivered by the unlikeliest of heroes, Michal Handzus. But they also delivered a vintage Blackhawks performance along the way, turning in a showing which will be added to the lore of what has been accomplished at the Madhouse on Madison.
"It's a special group," Chicago forward Patrick Kane said. "I think we know that in the locker room. It seems like in a lot of games we find ways to win, whether we should or not."
There were many questions about whether the home team should have emerged victorious Wednesday.
The Blackhawks blew a 3-1 lead before the game was 32 minutes old. Goalie Corey Crawford was not having a good night; he allowed goals on two of the first six shots he faced. The defense pairs were in disarray, jumbled wholesale before the game after allowing 15 goals in the past three games. Forward Kris Versteeg was stapled to the bench after a miscue that led to the goal by Dustin Brown midway through the second period.
It was not a dominant performance by any stretch, as Chicago's problems in Games 2-4 cropped up again and again during the first 40 minutes of Game 5. When Los Angeles forward Tanner Pearson sent a knuckler past Crawford with 6:52 left in the second period for the first lead for the visitors, things looked bleak for the defending champions.
But a funny thing happened on the way to elimination: The Blackhawks tapped into the championship heart that led them to titles in 2010 and 2013.
"Our guys, it's a testament to their competitiveness, their will to win and overcome a lot of hurdles and obstacles," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "Tonight was a great challenge with a great start, and having to come back in the third and winning in dramatic fashion."
Unheralded Ben Smith scored to tie the game at 4-4 with a gritty effort, diving to reach a rebound first and push it by Kings goalie Jonathan Quick 77 seconds into the third period.
Kane played his most inspired hockey of this series, taking every other shift for the Blackhawks. He finished with assists on four of the five goals, including the game-winner. Kane's linemate Brandon Saad was every bit as good. He had a goal and two assists, including the primary assist on the game-winner.
What followed Smith's goal, though, was some of the most desperate, entertaining hockey of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs; the two Western Conference giants traded opportunities for the final 18:43 of regulation.
That set up an overtime period for the ages.
The pace was dizzying and relentless as play went carried on virtually unabated by stoppages. At one point, the teams went 7:56 without a stoppage. The stoppage for ice maintenance in overtime periods that usually happens near the 10:00 mark came with 3:23 remaining. Yet, a winner could not be determined.
"That might have been the greatest overtime I've seen," said Quenneville.
Crawford, so solvable early in the game, became impenetrable, but he was matched save for save by Quick.
"In a tight game like that, our team always has a chance," Crawford said. "I always have confidence in our guys to score goals. Can't give up in a game like that. We're so resilient. We have a lot of firepower to come back in games."
The suspense was building by the minute. The crowd at United Center was roaring each time the Blackhawks gained the offensive blue line and holding its breath each time a Kings player even thought about pulling the trigger on a shot.
"A lot of times you thought the game was over, especially for us," Kane said.
It ended, though, when little-used Handzus, in a deep offensive slump, roofed a backhander past Quick 124 seconds into the second overtime. Handzus had played less than five minutes since the end of the second period.
"It was a great game, obviously a lot of emotion," Handzus said. "I thought the fans were great. It was as loud as I can remember here. You know, we put everything on the line. Obviously it's a big win, but in the playoffs you got to stay even-keel."
The Blackhawks have earned the right to show the heart of a champion again in two night's time. There are no guarantees that come with that opportunity, but the Blackhawks are OK with that proposition. It affords them the opportunity to put their championship pedigree on display once more.
They believe that will be enough.
Author: Shawn Roarke | Director, Editorial