If the Blackhawks are going to reverse their fortunes tonight in Game 4 of the Western Conference Final, they need something from their second line.
Anything at all would be helpful, really.
Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Michal Handzus aren’t just struggling in this series. They’re getting sand kicked in their faces by Jeff Carter and That ’70s Line and have been outworked, outskated and outscored 15-1 through the first three games.
Kane has been singled out for scoring just once in his last eight contests and for getting beaten routinely on his defensive assignments. But as bad as he’s been, there’s a sense that his luck could change at any minute and with it the outcome of this series.
It was about this time last year that Kane was suffering through a very similar slump in the WCF against Los Angeles, one that had him watching old highlight videos with his dad to try to rediscover his touch. And just like that, it came back. He scored the tying goal in Game 4, then exploded for a hat trick to help clinch the series in Game 5.
Next thing you knew, he counted for three more in the Stanley Cup Final and picked up the Conn Smythe Trophy after taking a twirl with the Stanley Cup.
“Kane is a scary guy,” Los Angeles coach Darryl Sutter said after his team’s morning skate. “The more you play him, the more you know it’s coming somewhere. He’s had some brilliant opportunities [in Game 3]. Those guys like that, they only need those one or two [chances]. We have to be even more aware of him.”
At some point, Kane and Sharp (with Handzus or Andrew Shaw or Ben Smith or–stop me if you’ve heard this before–Jonathan Toews in the middle) will get it together and become a factor for the Hawks.
But that’s not the only bumbling trio that has the potential to tilt the balance of the series.
Nobody’s paying much attention to the struggles of L.A.’s top line because that’s the sort of wiggle room you’re granted when your team is winning. But Anze Kopitar, Marian Gaborik and Dustin Brown, who dominated long stretches of the first two rounds, have yet to waltz through the curtain in this series.
They’ve been every bit as ineffective as Kane’s combo to this point. Kopitar picked up the secondary assist on Jake Muzzin’s power play winner in Game 2, but other than that? He and his linemates have combined for no goals, no assists and a minus-7 rating.
They haven’t just been nullified by Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa. They’ve become spectators while the Hawks play keep-away. Kopitar’s Corsi has been reduced to just 47.9 percent in this series from the 58.7 percent he rolled up against the Ducks in the last round. It’s tough to take charge of a game when you’re chasing the puck all the time.
The possession numbers are even worse for Kopitar’s linemates. Gaborik is at 45.3 percent for this series. Brown is just 42.
It’s easy to say they’re not working hard enough because their success against the Sharks and Ducks is so fresh in the mind, but give credit to the Hawks. Toews is a Selke Trophy finalist and Hossa is nearly his equal defensively. When Hossa was on the ice in Game 3, the Hawks attempted 19 shots to just six for the Kings’ best players. That’s a testament to his ability to read the play and put pressure on the puck, handcuffing Kopitar’s line and forcing them into low percentage plays and turnovers.
The Kings may have the lead, but it’s fair to wonder if they can close out this series while their top line continues to have its lunch eaten.
Maybe it’s time for Sutter to use the last change that comes with home ice to get Kopitar away from his Toews match-up. Or maybe he should try flipping Brown for Justin Williams to give the line some different energy.
The one thing that Sutter can’t do is nothing, because you know that Kane’s line will go off sooner rather than later. And if the Kings don’t have a ready response, this thing could go south for them in a hurry.