Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 31, 2013

Quick Still Is So The Kings Still Are; While The Blackhawks Clinch Twice

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life was traveling on Thursday, so this post is one day late.

While both the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Boston Bruins skated through their Stanley Cup eastern conference semifinal series with relative ease, it was a very different story out west, where both the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings and the regular season NHL points leader Chicago Blackhawks were pushed to the full seven games by their semifinal opponents.

When the Kings made their improbable run from 8th seed to champion last spring, they did so in dominant fashion, losing just four games in four series. Despite opening every series on the road L.A. won at least the first three games in each round, so never trailed in games at any time in the playoffs and obviously never faced the challenge of an elimination game. The certain star of the Kings’ first championship was goaltender Jonathan Quick, who recorded three shutouts in the playoffs while posting a paltry 1.50 goals against average.

It’s been a harder trip for Los Angeles through this year’s playoffs. As the fifth seed they again opened the first round on the road, and promptly dropped the first two games in St. Louis before rebounding with four straight wins to take the quarterfinal series. Then in the conference semifinals they faced off against the San Jose Sharks, led by captain “Jumbo” Joe Thornton. The Kings and Sharks played a classic home ice series, with neither team able to break through on the road. The series was thus tied at two games apiece and then again at 3-3, with four of the first six games being decided by a single goal.

The grinding series finally came to an end Tuesday evening at the Staples Center. In the end it was once again goalie Quick, and perhaps the inspiration of that championship banner hanging in the rafters, that propelled Los Angeles to victory. Against mutually tight forechecking the two teams combined for just eight shots on goal in the first period, with San Jose appearing to have the edge. Through much of the first and on into the opening minutes of the second period the Kings were unable to put a shot on net for nearly 19 minutes.

But when the Sharks’ Brent Burns was called for interference, the Kings made the most of their power play opportunity. A shot off a broken stick fluttered in harmlessly behind the goal, but caromed off the dasher and came back out in front. Winger Justin Williams pounced and was finally able to slide the puck past San Jose goaltender Antti Niemi. Less than three minutes later Williams skated in alone on Niemi after taking a pass from Anze Kopitar on a lovely give and go play. The ensuing one timer gave L.A. a two goal lead.

From there the Kings looked as always to Quick, who did not disappoint. While he lost his shutout bid early in the third period, he allowed nothing more, recording 25 saves in all. None was more dramatic than when he stretched his glove along the ice to snare an open shot from Joe Pavelski with just over five minutes remaining. Quick has now surrendered just twenty goals through thirteen playoff games, producing a goals against average just fractionally higher than he did during last year’s run. When the final horn sounded it was one more game decided by just one goal, and the defending champions were still alive in their quest to become the first team to successfully defend the Cup since the Detroit Red Wings repeated in 1998.

That Red Wings squad was one of twenty-one in a row that have gone to the postseason. For much of the lockout shortened NHL regular season a 22nd consecutive appearance was in doubt. Detroit finally clinched a playoff spot in the season’s final week; but after surprising Anaheim in the opening round were given little chance against Chicago in the conference semifinals. The Blackhawks ran away with the Presidents’ Trophy, awarded annually to the team with the best record in the league. They did that largely on the strength of a remarkable 21-0-3 start which obliterated the NHL’s old record for earning points in the most consecutive games to begin a season. Chicago easily turned aside the Minnesota Wild in the opening round, and the Blackhawks were expected to do the same with the Red Wings.

But after opening with a 4-1 win Chicago ran into one hot goaltender in Detroit’s Jimmy Howard. The Blackhawks managed just two goals over the next three games as they fell into a 3-1 hole and suddenly faced a string of elimination games. They rallied for a 4-1 win at home in Game Five, but went into the third period of Game Six in Detroit trailing 2-1. But fans in Joe Louis Arena who thought they were about to witness a great upset were quickly disappointed. Chicago came out firing and finally solved Howard, netting three goals in less than nine minutes in an eventual 4-3 victory, forcing the series back to the United Center.

On Wednesday night these two Original Six teams met for the 806th time, but for the very first time in a playoff Game Seven. For more than 58 minutes they skated evenly and the score was tied 1-1. With the clock showing just 1:49 remaining and the crowd on its feet, Chicago defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson let fly a shot from the point that found its way through intervening bodies and over the glove of Howard. But even as the packed house erupted referee Stephen Walkom was back at center ice waving the goal off. Trailing well behind the play Walkom had spotted two players engaging in some harmless shoving near the benches and whistled a penalty just before Hjalmarsson’s shot left his stick. The contact bordered on incidental and occurred well away from the play. With less than two minutes left in a playoff Game Seven, it was a phenomenally bad call at a phenomenally bad time. Since Walkom is a well-regarded official, the incident reminds us that the men in striped shirts are human too.

Fortunately for Walkom and the NHL, Chicago’s Brent Seabrook ripped a shot from the high slot less than four minutes into overtime that deflected off a Detroit defender and sailed past Howard for the game winner. While it made for a disappointing end to the Red Wings surprising playoff run, under the circumstances it was only just.

So now the NHL’s final four are set, and in an age of salary-cap induced parity, they are proof that class can still win out. Both Chicago and Pittsburgh, the number one seeds in each conference, play on. Defending champion Los Angeles still has a chance to repeat. And with the addition of Boston, the four conference finalists are also the winners of the last four Stanley Cups. Through two rounds the NHL playoffs have produced twists and turns and plenty of excitement on the ice. Given the four teams that remain, the best should be still to come.

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