By Allan Muir
One more game. Apparently the Hockey Gods do answer prayers.
With a nerve wracking 4-3 win over the Los Angeles Friday night, the Chicago Blackhawks extended the Western Conference Final to a Game 7 showdown on Sunday night with a berth in the Stanley Cup Final on the line.
Even if that one doesn’t feature three lead changes, some how’d-he-do-that? goaltending and two of the most thrilling individual performances in years, it should be a dandy. The Kings are 6-0 in elimination games this spring and already have won two Game 7′s on the road. They’ll be facing a Chicago team that is now 13-0 in Games 5-7 over the past two seasons, and 5-0 when facing elimination.
But more to the point, they’ll be up against the one-man wrecking crew named Patrick Kane. The dynamic winger taken control of the series over the past two games, carrying the Hawks with seven points while seeming to play in bullet time.
Tonight’s tally: a highlight reel assist and two goals, including a jaw-dropping winner with 3:45 remaining.
Clutch? Sure. Kane has a knack for rising to the occasion. He has 37 career playoff goals now and 21 of those have come in the third period or overtime. But this was more than that. This was a legend-making performance they’ll be talking about when he’s inducted into the Hall of Fame.
That winning goal was, fittingly for the surroundings, Gretzkyesque: A bold slice of daring and imaginative hockey.
Who else but Kane would reject a clean slot from the left dot with Willie Mitchell acting as a screen in favor of driving back along the boards and darting across the blueline — crossing paths with three Kings along the way who could have thwarted his bid — before unleashing a rocket that would elude a screened Jonathan Quick?
This was “Groundhog Day” stuff, like Phil Connors finally catching the falling plate in the diner only after living through and detailing the moment countless times. Who else would possibly think to try this, let alone navigate the perfect path to execute the play?
“It’s unbelievable,” said Jonathan Toews, who had the goat horns yanked off his head by his teammate’s late-game heroics. “I looked at him and I almost started laughing. It’s amazing what he can do in these big games when our season is on the line. Nobody else seems to be able to do it the way he does it.”
That play was only slightly more magical than the pass he made to set up Duncan Keith’s game-tying goal just four minutes earlier. That sublime backhand feed led Keith just past the check of Trevor Lewis and into a dead spot in the high slot for a nasty wrister that beat Quick on the low blocker side and silenced a Staples Center crowd that had whipped to a froth moments earlier.
“It’s a privilege playing with a guy like that every day and seeing the things he can do,” Keith said.
It’s a testament to Kane’s wizardry that it overshadowed an equally inspired performance from Los Angeles’ Drew Doughty. The defender has been a force throughout the postseason, but he’s raised his commitment to Olympian levels in this series. Coming off a remarkable Game 5 that saw him record a team-high nine shots while playing 39:04, he was majestic tonight, a dominant force in all three zones who personally took control of his team’s hopes in that frantic third period.
He knotted the score at two 5:32 into the frame after picking up a Dustin Brown pass that had been blocked by Brandon Saad. Doughty paused, darted to create an open lane that would maximize the screen provided by Mike Richards and then hammered it past Corey Crawford from 50 feet out.
Just 2:06 later, he created Alec Martinez’s go-ahead goal with another patience-of-Job play, this time faking a shot twice and drawing two Chicago defenders to himself before throwing the puck behind his back right onto the tape of his partner, who found himself with 20 feet of open ice on all sides before beating Crawford with a wrister from the high slot.
Doughty understandably was defiant after the loss. “We’re fine,” he said. “We still believe we could have won this game tonight. We know that we can still beat this team, but we also know it’s not going to be easy. They’re going to have their best game in this Game 7, especially in their home rink. We’ve just got to reset, fly over there tomorrow, and just be ready to win a hockey game.”
Kane was looking ahead as well. “We know they’re a resilient group and they’ve won two Game 7′s on the road. It’s going to be a tough one. We know they’ll bring their best for Game 7.”
However it ends, it’s a good bet that one of the series’ two leading men will have a hand in the result.