CHICAGO -- Michal Handzus has been maligned for his play during in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but the goal he scored Wednesday for the Chicago Blackhawks was literally a season-saver.
Handzus scored his second goal of the postseason 2:04 into double overtime to beat the Los Angeles Kings 5-4 at United Center and force the Western Conference Final to a Game 6 on Friday at Staples Center (9 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS).
The Kings lead the best-of-7 series 3-2.
Handzus played 14:30 in Game 5 but saw the ice for 1:38 in the third period, 2:43 in the first overtime and 19 seconds in the second OT. He came into the game minus-6 with two points (one goal) in Chicago's 16 previous postseason games.
"You still have to have a lot of confidence in yourself," the 37-year-old center said. "I'm not real happy how [I've] played, but [I've] just got to be confident. It's a lot of fun to be playing in the playoffs. It's conference finals. You cannot just look at yourself all the time, be down [and] be disappointed. You just got to be positive. If you don't want be positive, then probably you won't get out of the slump or anything. I stay positive. I'm [a] better player than [I've] showed. [I'll] try to show it next game again."
His goal should go a long way to boosting that positive outlook on the flight to Los Angeles. None of the negatives associated with his game up to that point seemed to matter all that much after he roofed a backhander past the outstretched glove of Kings goalie Jonathan Quick to end a classic game.
After high-scoring players like Patrick Kane, Brandon Saad, Marian Gaborik and Dustin Brown dominated much of the end-to-end hockey played for more than 80 minutes, it was the plodding veteran from Slovakia who sent Blackhawks fans into hysterics.
With a faceoff coming up in the offensive zone, Handzus took the place of Andrew Shaw, who'd centered the Blackhawks' second line almost the whole game. Handzus won the draw and soon found himself in the right place at the right time. Kane collected the puck in the neutral zone and started the play by feeding Saad, who carried over the Kings blue line.
That's when Handzus started chugging down the slot toward the net, left unchecked by forwards Trevor Lewis and Mike Richards. Saad took the puck to the right circle, waited a beat for Handzus to get in position, and sent a pass to the slot. The puck caromed off the outside of Handzus' skate blade, right to his stick, and he did the rest by lifting a beautiful backhander past Quick.
"Kane made a nice soft pass and I saw a 2-on-2," said Saad, who finished with a goal and two assists. "[Handzus] had some speed going through the middle there and [made it] 3-on-2. I threw it to him, and he handled it off his skate and he made a great move. You find the open guy and make the play. He had a great goal."
Told later that Saad described him as "having some speed" on the play, Handzus smiled.
"I think he slowed down, so maybe it looks like it," he said. "I was surprised, too, that I got open like that. He had a great heads-up play that he waited, waited, bring the guys to him [and] then just made a great pass."
Handzus wasn't the only one thrilled to see the puck hit the back of the net. He might take a lot of criticism from outside the locker room, but the Blackhawks have come to appreciate what the big center adds to the mix. Handzus battled through wrist and leg injuries in the Stanley Cup Final against the Boston Bruins last season and needed surgery to fix his wrist.
"He's a warrior," Kane said. "He comes to play every night and does whatever he can to be in the lineup, whether he's injured or not. We [saw] that last year with the amount of injuries he had, how he brought something every night. He had some huge goals in last year's playoffs."
Now he's got one in these playoffs.
"We know he's capable of scoring those big goals, probably none bigger than tonight with the game on the line," Kane said. "I knew he has a great backhand. It was a great shot by him. I'm sure he's happy about that one as well as the team."
The next trick, for Handzus and the Blackhawks, is making sure the positive vibe extends to the next game. The Kings will be even more determined to end this series on home ice Friday, and Handzus and Chicago's other veterans are already anticipating a Grade-A effort from Los Angeles. They went through the same thing a year ago in coming back from a 3-1 deficit in the Western Conference Semifinals to beat the Detroit Red Wings on their way to the Stanley Cup.
"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. It's only one game. We're still 3-2 down. We got to go there and do the big job, win one over there."