After less than 48 hours since Game 5 and its breakneck pace, the Kings, Hawks, their coaching staffs, upper management, fans, and the general sporting public have barely still all barely caught their collective breath. And there’s still the absolutely terrifying prospect that tonight will be as equally insane, if not moreso.
In his heart of defensively oriented hearts, Kings coach Darryl Sutter probably would have preferred a much slower pace to Game 5. But it had to bring even the slightest crooked smile to his perpetual bitter beer face to know that his team could not only withstand the Hawks’ vaunted speed and transition, but also give them absolutely everything they could handle going back the other way. Well, at least his forward corps.
And that’s a corps that’s gotten progressively more and more out of the top unit of Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, and Marian Gaborik after remaining largely silent for the first three games of the series. Brown and Gaborik each have goals in the last two games, and Kopitar has three assists in that timeframe as well. With That 70s Line of Carter and the Kids still freewheeling around the Hawks’ defensive zone with impunity, having this line heat up could mean the guillotine for the Hawks. Even with the opportunity to pick their opponent on Staples ice, Sutter has continually chosen to get Kopitar out against Toews in the hopes that they neutralize one another, and for the most part they have.
What Sutter has been doing is getting Carter, Pearson, and Toffoli out against the Hawks’ bottom six forwards (or bottom three who skate more than 5:00 a night), particularly at home, and they’ve been eviscerating them. If the Hawks are going to survive this trip into the La Brea Tar Pits tonight, Quenneville is going to need quick changes to get a better matchup on the ice for this line or hope that Corey Crawford is exponentially better than he has been the last four games, and neither sounds all that appetizing.
For the Kings blue line, it became readily apparent once again what can be done to Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene if they’re forced to actually defend, which the Hawks’ depth was finally able to do on Wednesday night. But back at home and even after playing 40 minutes on Wednesday, Drew Doughty will still be double shifted and be forced to match up against any perceived Hawks threat, and he’s been more than up for the challenge the entire series.
And even behind that, there still looms the specter of the “Jonathan Quick Game” even as the sample size grows larger and his middling-to-bad save percentage hasn’t fluctuated or corrected. Quick has made brilliant saves when he has had to, and they have immediately been turned into cashed in opportunities by his forwards, as was the case on his save on Toews which resulted in the Gaborik goal at the other end on Wednesday. But bringing to him a high volume of work as the Hawks did in Game 5 and running the risk that he simply slams the door is the far preferable option than being overly finicky in shot selection. Everything must go on net.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, they live to fight another day almost solely on the basis of Brandon Saad and Patrick Kane freaking the fuck off on Wednesday night. But Saad being an absolute demon, particularly through the neutral zone masked the more encouraging note that the Hawks’ puck support during breakouts was excellent, as there was very little fleeing of the zone prematurely. That will have to continue tonight if they’re to have a snowball’s chance in Malibu of bringing this series back to the United Center.
At press time there is no word yet on what the forward lines will look like tonight, but based on their usage from the second period onward Wednesday, it seems reasonable to think that both Kris Versteeg and Brandon Bollig will be watching from tonight, with Peter Regin being the obvious choice to come in should only one of them sit. Should both of them, it’ll likely be Joakim Nordstrom over Jeremy Morin. Michal Handzus was never going to sit even if he didn’t provide the improbable game winner the other night, but now in light of that the hope is as it always has been with Zus, that Q doesn’t have to go to his blankie too often and he is utilized as the specialist he is with minimal exposure to even strength.
But this all truly rides on the second line of Kane, Saad, and Andrew Shaw, who is apparently fine according to Quenneville despite dragging a dead leg around for overtime. That Kane was finally able to move without dragging 77 inches of Slovak around created an actual attack from a line beyond Toews and Hossa, and the result was Kane doing what Kane generally does against Willie Mitchell. But at home Sutter may just say “Fuck it” and toss Doughty out against that line too, which is where having any kind of non-Bollig-or-Versteeg contribution out of the bottom six would be vital.
Sutter will also have a chance to better attack Quenneville’s remixed defensive pairings, and the Carter line is probably already adjusting their bibs for either the Oduya-Rozy or Seabrook-Leddy units. Rozy and Oduya were actually quite solid on Wednesday, but again, that was with cherry picked matchups. Seabrook and Leddy are the real concern however, as there wasn’t a lot of intuition if not communication between two pinch-happy defensemen, which can make for a tentative Leddy. And a tentative Leddy is a borderline useless if not outright detrimental Leddy. And his escapability in the event the Kings kitchen sink their forecheck or elusiveness if they gum up neutral ice is going to be key either way.
Behind all of this Corey Crawford will once again get an opportunity regain some of the form from the first two rounds, even if they were outliers statistically and were always going to regress a slight bit, but perhaps not to this degree. He hasn’t been helped by some of his teammates, as there are very few goals in this series one could say he’s had much of a chance on, with Pearson’s from Wednesday’s being the obvious clubhouse leader. But he stood tall in the third and in the overtimes, which could be a sign that he’s regained some kind of rhythm. He’ll need the best performance of the series from either goaltender tonight for the Hawks to equalize it, which is an admittedly low standard considering both are carrying sub-.900 save percentages through five games.
That the Hawks have won both games wherein they have not allowed a power play goal from the Kings and scored one themselves is absolutely no accident. These teams are so evenly matched that handing over the fucking launch codes to the lethal Kings advantage with needless penalties 200 feet away from the Hawks’ net have to stop. Giving Doughty, Muzzin, and Voynov a little less time to perform a vivisection from the top of the umbrella by having forward close out harder in front of them would be nice, but one thing at a time.
The consequences remain the same as Wednesday with the task ahead that much more daunting with Sutter now able to pick his matchups. A loss in six games is no less disappointing than a loss in five for a team that has shouted from the mountaintops to expect them to win a championship. And with home ice in this round and potentially the next, that’s where the basic odds say they should be. With the Kane, Saad, and Shaw line materializing out of the ether to give the Hawks a competent second line to attack with, these teams each have about the same amount of weapons to work with. With so many things cancelling each other out, it can boil down to individual talent, where again, these teams stack up pretty equally. Home ice advantage is a real, tangible thing for the Hawks to have to overcome tonight, and they’ve struggled with doing so to this point in the post season.
This will not be fun. This will be torturous. But it will be necessary to extend the season. Let’s go Hawks.