LOS ANGELES – Wearing a black-and-gray windbreaker with a matching hat and an expressionless face, Jonathan Toews stood at a podium in front of reporters and flashing cameras in a cramped Staples Center news room.
Toews, the Blackhawks’ center, needed few reminders. Just three nights earlier, they had dropped Game 2 in disappointing fashion in front of their home crowd, allowing six unanswered goals over the final 22 minutes. The onslaught tied the series at a game apiece. It breathed new life into the Los Angeles Kings, as much as it pumped the brakes on the Hawks' march toward a potential second straight appearance in the Stanley Cup Final and third in five years. Of course he understood all this.
So before taking the ice for Game 3 of the Western Conference final Saturday night, Toews cut to the chase.
“We want to play [ticked] off, considering how we played last game,” he deadpanned.
Gee, how do they feel now?
It wasn’t all that long ago that this series seemed to tilt significantly in the Hawks’ favor. Put it this way. They beat the Kings in five games in the conference final a year ago. They swept the three meetings from the 2013-14 regular season. They comfortably won Game 1 by two goals, and went up, 2-0, in Game 2 before the now well-documented collapse. Although little in postseason hockey can ever be considered a foregone conclusion, the growing advantage, still, was obvious.
But now, that coronation is beginning to feel like a lifetime ago. After Saturday’s 4-3 loss, the Hawks trail the Kings in the series, 2-1.
Sure, Toews, described by Kings coach Darryl Sutter as the “best two-way player in the National Hockey League” in recent days, came out angry and firing out of the gate in Game 3. Less than five minutes after the first drop, he stole the puck, shifted past a defender with a nifty move and beat Jonathan Quick one-on-one with a shot between the pads. The short-handed score was the Hawks' first of the postseason. He scored again not long after in the opening period on a scrum in front of the net.
But things cooled off – again. And the rest of the line struggled to match his firepower.
“For us,” Toews said, “it's just a matter of continuing that effort that we start with in the first period."
But after another blown lead, the growing, quiet concern is that the Kings, simply put, have the better, deeper top line. Can the rest of the line match Toews?
Across the ice, the Kings simply look better right now, and momentum has shifted their way. They’ve outscored the Hawks, 9-3, over the past four periods, while goalie Corey Crawford has been overwhelmed. And center Jeff Carter has been especially effective for the Kings, scoring four goals and assisted three for seven points over this span, a span where everything seems to be going their way.
Granted, it’s still early.
“Two-to-one series against the defending Stanley Cup champs, I don’t think that’s taking control of a series,” Kings forward Dustin Brown said afterward. “I think that both teams have shown that they are able to battle adversity.”
Fair. Remember, the Hawks actually haven’t won the first road game of a playoff series over their last 10, which dates to the 2010 postseason. But this makes Game 4 all the more critical at this point, because, well, they’ve also won at least one road playoff game during this time.
So they’ll take the ice angry again in Game 4 on Monday. But how long will that last?