By Jay Zawaski-
(CBS) — With Monday’s Western Conference Final Game 4 hours away, I find myself looking back on this series and asking myself what has gone wrong? Why are the Blackhawks trailing 2-1 against the Kings?
When Game 2 ended Saturday night, the tenor of Hawks fans was anger and frustration. For the second straight game, the Hawks had blown a lead and played a horrible third period.
I spent most of the postgame show on the Score questioning Joel Quenneville’s lineup choices and criticizing the players for making out-of-character mistakes. Very little time was spent in praise of the Kings. That’s not to say Los Angeles hasn’t played well, but it’s ahead in the series for pouncing on Chicago’s mistakes.
Let’s rewind to Game 2.
The Blackhawks began the third period up 2-1 and largely in control of the game, despite a late second-period goal from the Kings. Just more than a minute into the third period, Brandon Bollig took a penalty so far off the play that the NBC Sports Network cameras didn’t even pick up the violation. He went to the box for interference, and the Kings score on the power play 23 seconds later.
Just more than a minute later, Peter Regin jumped off the bench and handled a puck just an eyelash ahead of Marcus Kruger leaving the ice. The Hawks were tagged for a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty and 1:14 later, the puck was in the back of the Hawks’ net.
Then, what appeared to be a harmless play in the Hawks’ zone turned into disaster. A puck deflected and appeared to hit the netting behind Corey Crawford. Every player on the ice for Chicago stopped playing. Tanner Pearson passed the puck in front of Crawford, and Tyler Toffoli scored. It was 4-2 with just more than 11 minutes left in the game.
Down two late, the Hawks were forced to press and take chances. That led to a number of odd-man rushes for the Kings, and eventually Jeff Carter scored, making it 5-2.
As you can see, uncharacteristic Blackhawks mistakes cost them Game 2.
Now let’s go to Game 3.
After the first period, the Hawks led the Kings, 2-1. Felt familiar, right?
About eight minutes into the second period, Pearson won a puck battle against Brent Seabrook (who must have lost his stick three or four times during the course of this game) and centered the puck to Carter. Johnny Oduya and Michal Handzus were near the crease with Carter, but neither player reacted, and the Kings tied it up. Had one of the defenders taken out the man in front or blocked the centering pass, the Hawks would still lead.
Then, at 14:19 of the second, Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson were caught flat footed at the blue line after the Hawks fumbled the puck around the neutral zone. Toffoli split the defensive pair and scored on a breakaway, putting the Kings up 3-2.
In the third period, the Kings got a power play after Michal Rozsival (of all people) retaliated and high-sticked Kyle Clifford. The Kings and Drew Dougthy would score two seconds after Rozsival’s penalty expired for a 4-2 lead.
After Game 3, Quenneville said the Hawks have put together seven really solid periods in which they did everything right. The other two were abysmal. That’s what should give Hawks fans hope about this series.
However, the Kings aren’t going to cough up a 3-1 series lead. Monday’s Game 4 is as close to a must win as the Hawks have played in recent memory. The Kings aren’t the old, tired and hurt 2013 Red Wings. They are not the “waiting to implode” St. Louis Blues of, well, any year in their history.
The Kings have been to the West Finals for three consecutive seasons. They’re well-coached, experienced and know how to win. There’s no coming back from a 3-1 deficit against this team.