EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Los Angeles Kings captain Dustin Brown was sitting at his dressing-room stall for the longest time after the Kings' 4-3 win in Game 3 on Saturday night at Staples Center, surrounded by media.
Among the many questions he fielded was whether the Kings had the Chicago Blackhawks on the run and how there was an air of a champion about his team, having taken a 2-1 lead over the defending champs.
Brown kept shaking his head, trying to downplay the idea that somehow the die has been cast with two straight Kings wins, even if one of them came in Chicago in Game 2 -- breaking the Blackhawks' eight-game home winning streak -- and the Kings have somehow managed to win Games 2 and 3 in spite of giving up at least the first goal.
But the fact of the matter is that having lost two straight, the Blackhawks are facing another critical test Monday in Game 4 in their march toward what they hope is a second straight championship.
Here are seven things that will play a critical role in whether they even this series and, for the third straight series, synthesize the playoff matchup to a best-of-three.
Deep as a well
The Kings are winning the depth battle quite handily. Since late in the second period of Game 2, when a Mike Richards pass jumped into the net off Justin Williams' skates, the Kings have outscored the Blackhawks 10-3, and the last of those Chicago goals was a frankly meaningless goal by Patrick Sharp with 4.2 seconds left in Game 3. The Kings are simply rolling four lines over and over as Blackhawks head coach Darryl Sutter seems unconcerned with any meaningful line matching. "We take great pride in our depth as a team, forwards and defense," Richards explained Sunday. "When we get into a rhythm of rolling four lines and staying out of the penalty box, I think it's big for our hockey team because it allows us to roll four lines and come at the other team in waves and just keep that relentless pressure on. I think it's big for our team." The Blackhawks have that capability too, and there's lots of skill on their side of the puck to make it so. We saw it earlier in the playoffs, but it has not been apparent yet in the conference finals. "It's time to bring it, it's time to play our best hockey. No more waiting. Everyone knows and understands we can bring more," captain Jonathan Toews said Sunday. "We know how good a team we're up against and what it's going to take to beat them. We can be positive about a lot of things and remind ourselves what we're capable of as a team and where we've been before, considering this situation in the series. So let's go play a great game for each other tomorrow. It's a great opportunity for us."
It's a well-worn storyline but when one team gets rolling like the Kings are, the eyes are naturally drawn to the players who aren't performing on the other side of the equation. Patrick Kane has one goal and one assist in his past eight games. His play in the series reminds us a bit of the last part of the Olympic tournament, when the skilled winger was just a bit off. He had a great chance early in the second period in the slot of Game 3 and then had another chance off the rebound but couldn't find the back of the net. "I don't think I've played up to par for myself the first three games of the series. It would be nice to turn that around and play good in Game 4," Kane said Sunday. Yes, Sharp did score in Game 3 but, with all due respect, the shot with 4.2 seconds left in the game hardly was a difference-maker. Sharp has three goals in total and just two in his last nine postseason games. "I never really doubted myself as far as scoring goals. It's always nice to put one in. It would have been a lot nicer if there was a little more time on the clock," Sharp said of his late goal Saturday. "I felt like [Game 3], individually, I was around the net a little more, hanging onto the puck down low. Whether you're creating chances or getting chances yourself, it's always nice to have those feelings. I try not to judge myself, the way I'm playing, off goals and assists, but at this time of year those things are important. I want to give my best to help the team that way." Bryan Bickell, last year's playoff scoring dynamo who parlayed that success into a rich contract, has gone four straight without a goal and has just one in his last seven. If he's going to keep playing with Toews and Marian Hossa, he needs to find the back of the net.
Down the middle
One of the rhetorical questions asked of the Blackhawks in 2010 and then last year was whether they could win a championship without traditional top-end depth down the middle. Sharp, not a natural center, inherited the second-line center job in '10, and last season it was Michal Handzus, who did yeoman service after being acquired from the San Jose Sharks at the trade deadline. So the answer was, sure, you can win a Cup when you're overmatched down the middle, as long as other players help fill in around the edges. In this series, Handzus looks a step behind, and that is hurting the production of wingers Sharp and Kane (see above). While Toews remains the best player on the ice for the Blackhawks, night in and night out the Kings, rolling out Anze Kopitar, the scorching hot Jeff Carter, Jarret Stoll and Richards are winning the battle down the middle quite comfortably. And unless the Blackhawks can find a way to negate that, this series is going to be over in a hurry.
First Corey Crawford is the story because he was excellent in Game 1 and no one thinks he gets enough credit. Now, Crawford is in danger of becoming the story because he is losing the goaltending battle to the Kings' Jonathan Quick. You can rationalize all four of the Kings' goals in Game 3 and you can excuse pretty much all of the five he allowed in Game 2, but at the other end of the ice Quick is making more critical saves at critical times. In Game 2, after the Blackhawks had taken a 2-1 lead, Quick made a dramatic save on a glorious Hossa opportunity. Meanwhile, the Kings' third goal, by Tyler Toffoli, somehow sneaks under one of Crawford's pads, and the Blackhawks netminder couldn't track goals by Kings defensemen Slava Voynov or Drew Doughty, who scored the eventual game winner. The Blackhawks aren't necessarily losing because of Crawford but they have little chance of winning this series unless he is better.
The Blackhawks went 0-for-4 on the power play in Game 3 and are now a desultory 1-for-21 on the road in the playoffs. We might not know much about math, but we do know those stats stink and tell us the Blackhawks are the worst team in the playoffs on the road with the man advantage. And it's quite possibly the single element that is most critical for the Blackhawks to fix if they are going to even this series Monday. They have scored the first goal in all three games and have forced the Kings onto their heels early on, including forcing the Kings into minor penalties early in the game. But they haven't been able to put the Kings away. Not surprisingly, one of the things the Blackhawks were working on during a rare off-day practice Sunday was their work with the man advantage, with coach Joel Quenneville mixing up personnel on his top two units, moving Brent Seabrook to the top unit and Patrick Sharp to the second. "We know we didn't create any goals and, at least when we don't score, we want to create chances to get momentum," Hossa said. "Today we had a few changes, and hopefully that'll bring what we're looking for."
When the Blackhawks fell behind Detroit 3-1 in the second round last spring, Quenneville reacted by pairing Toews with Kane, and the results were immediate and emphatic. Does Quenneville have something like that in mind for Game 4? The issue is that Kane and Hossa have never found comfort playing together, and Hossa and Toews have been dynamic, with Hossa leading the Blackhawks with 14 points. So putting Kane with Toews would mean moving Hossa elsewhere and potentially creating other problems down the lineup. The Blackhawks did not use line rushes during their skate Sunday, so Quenneville wasn't tipping his hand, although he did open the door to making changes to try to get the team moving forward. "We've always looked at options as we've gone along in series, or games, to make some adjustments if we don't like the way things are going -- the majority of the last two games you look at 40 minutes, you're pleased with it and you look at what happened the last 20 and it evaporated," the coach said. "There are a lot of positives to take out of these games. I don't know if we need major alterations. But we always look at making a tweak here or there. It could happen."
A year ago, when the Blackhawks dispatched the Kings in five games in the Western Conference finals, it was clear the Kings were not the Kings of 2012. They were banged up and worn down. Are we seeing a mirror image with the Blackhawks, who played a ton of hockey in winning the Cup last year during a lockout-shortened season that went to June 24? Throw in the compressed schedule of this past season and the fact that 10 Blackhawks played in Sochi at the Olympics, and is it not possible that this team is simply fatigued and that, conversely, the Kings are in a better spot than a year ago, even though they had to endure two seven-game series to get here? Certainly the Kings have been the superior team late in Games 2 and 3. Justin Williams insisted it's not that the Kings smell blood, but that they are powerfully motivated to exact vengeance. "Every game gets harder to win, the further you go. We won in 2012 and then we lost last year, and that might get the fire going a little more, knowing someone got the better of you," Williams said Sunday. "And I know a lot of guys on that team, on our team, hate losing just as much as they love winning. We feel we owe them something."