Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 22, 2014

No Sure Things When Chasing The Cup

It was past nine o’clock on the east coast Wednesday evening, and while both semifinal series of the Stanley Cup playoffs were still in their early stages, for many hockey fans an air of inevitability had set in. The Rangers and Canadiens had played just two of a potential seven games in their Eastern Conference showdown; but those two contests had been at Montreal’s Centre Bell, and the visitors from New York had won both in convincing fashion. Game 2 of the Western Conference faceoff between the Blackhawks and Kings was just approaching the end of the middle period, but after easily winning Game 1 Chicago was outskating Los Angeles again. The 2-0 lead displayed on the scoreboards at the United Center disguised just how thoroughly the speedy Blackhawks were dominating the Kings.

Could there be any doubt that fans in New York and Chicago were already allowing themselves to dream about an Original Six matchup in the Cup Finals? For the Rangers, just one year removed from the coaching tyranny of John Tortorella, it would be sweet vindication of management’s decision to replace the pugnacious head coach after five seasons behind the bench with the more even-keeled Alain Vigneault.

The Canadiens had been riding high after ousting their arch rivals from Boston in the second round, but on home ice they showed none of the spark that had carried them back from a three games to two deficit in that series. New York scored twice before Game 1 was seven minutes old, and went on to an easy 7-2 win. Montreal’s hopes for the rest of the series took a major blow before Game 2 when Coach Michel Therrien announced that goalie Carey Price was done for the playoffs. Price, who backstopped the gold medal winning Team Canada in last winter’s Olympics, was injured in the second period when New York’s Chris Kreider barreled into him skates first at high speed. Kreider claimed it was an accident, but the Canadiens and their fans weren’t so sure; their doubts no doubt fueled by the knowledge that Price wasn’t the first goalie to be taken out by a collision with Kreider.

Montreal came out flying in Game 2, and even took their first lead of the series on a deflected shot that found its way past New York’s Henrik Lundqvist at 6:14 of the first. It was a lead that lasted for all of seventeen seconds. Ryan McDonough quickly evened the score for the Rangers and Rick Nash put them ahead for good before the first period ended. Rookie Dustin Tokarski wasn’t bad in goal for the Canadiens, but King Henrik was simply better at the other end. Lundqvist, who came into the series having not won a game in Montreal in five years, was impenetrable after the early tally; and New York headed home with a chance to advance to the Finals for the first time in two decades without having to make another trip north of the border.

Meanwhile many in the packed house at the United Center, two miles west of Lake Michigan, had perhaps begun to contemplate the “D” word. Chicago ended a near half-century of futility by winning the Cup in 2010, and then won it all again last year by stunning the Bruins with a late surge in Game 6 of the Finals. Surely in this age of parity throughout sports and constant free agent turnover, a third championship in five years would qualify as the makings of a dynasty. The great Wayne Gretzky, who was in town for the game, had said as much in a radio interview earlier in the day. Gretzky knows a thing or two about dynasties after all, having won five titles in seven years with the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s.

The Blackhawks had won Game 1 three days earlier by a score of 3-1, with often maligned goaltender Corey Crawford outplaying the Kings’ star Jonathan Quick. Wednesday a Nick Leddy power play goal late in the first and a Ben Smith tally early in the second put Chicago on top and their superior speed seemed likely to keep them there. That quickness contributed to a two-on-one rush that ended with Brent Seabrook firing a scorcher at Quick, and for a split second it appeared that the Chicago lead was about to be 3-0. But somehow the L.A. goalie made the save. In the moment it seemed of little import. An hour later, it looked more like the turning point of the game, and perhaps the series.

The Kings’ Justin Williams beat Crawford with less than two minutes remaining in the middle period, but that did little to quiet the boisterous Chicago crowd. But then early in the third Brandon Bollig was sent off for interference, and Los Angeles needed less than half a minute on the power play to even the score on a deflection by Jeff Carter. Just two and a half minutes later the Kings again had a man advantage, and Jake Muzzin put L.A. ahead for the first time in the series. Before the period was half over Tyler Toffoli added to the Kings’ outburst to make the score 4-2 Los Angeles. Suddenly the Blackhawks didn’t seem to be skating quite so fast. Suddenly the Kings didn’t appear to be totally overmatched.

As Chicago began pressing to try to get back in the game, it was L.A. that started to force turnovers and develop odd man rushes. Carter notched his second goal of the game on a two-on-one with a little over five minutes remaining, and then completed the hat trick with a lengthy shot into an empty net with time winding down. The five goal storm stirred up by the Kings in the third period of a playoff game matched their total from a win against Vancouver more than twenty years ago. As for the Blackhawks, they hadn’t lost a home game in this year’s playoffs, and had never lost a playoff contest to Los Angeles at the United Center; a pair of perfect marks that disappeared in the barrage of L.A. goals.

Up two games to none and skating on home ice at Madison Square Garden Thursday evening, the Rangers have made themselves the heavy favorite in the Eastern Conference series. Even after the Wednesday night shock, the Blackhawks remain, on paper at least, the superior team in the West. Perhaps in the end that Original Six showdown between New York and Chicago will yet take place. But as the L.A. Kings showed with a remarkable flurry of goals in Game 2, in the Stanley Cup playoffs momentum can change in a hurry. Fans shouldn’t spend too much time dreaming about the next round. They might miss the decisive moment of this one.

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