It wasn’t looking good for the Chicago Blackhawks, who entered the third period down 4-3 to a Los Angeles Kings team that hasn’t coughed up many leads lately.
But just when it looked like the Blackhawks were kaput, a steady fourth liner and a veteran who’s struggled through most of the postseason proved pivotal.
Ben Smith tied the game 1:17 into the third period and Michal Handzus got the game-winner 2:04 into the second overtime as the Blackhawks beat the Kings 5-4 in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final on Wednesday night. The Blackhawks staved off elimination and forced Game 6, which will be Friday night in Los Angeles.
The Blackhawks were rolling the dice in several ways on Wednesday night, including with line combinations. Coach Joel Quenneville put Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw and Patrick Kane together at the morning skate and hit paydirt. Kane tallied four assists, Saad had a goal and and two assists, the second setting up Handzus, and Shaw two assists. Shaw, who just came back from a right-leg injury earlier this series, looked to suffer another one late in the third when he was crunched along the boards by Jake Muzzin. But he came back to play the rest of the game.
It was a riveting ending to a game that had its ups and downs again, especially for the Blackhawks. They had a two-goal lead twice; it was eventually erased. They were down entering the third period again, this time on the strength of a Tanner Pearson wrister. But unlike previous games, the Blackhawks were going to go down swinging in this one.
[RELATED - Blackhawks Ben Smith ties up Game 5 with goal off rebound]
And they got the winner from the most unlikely of players in Handzus, who has seen his minutes diminish as his game has struggled. But coming on late with Brandon Saad and Patrick Kane, Handzus was in front, taking the Saad pass and wristing it high over Jonathan Quick for the winner.
“Kane made a nice soft pass and saw a two on two. 'Zus' had some speed going through the middle there and making the 3 on 2,” Saad said. “I threw it to him and he handled it off his skate and he made a great move.”
Handzus, not known for being fleet of foot, chuckled at Saad’s speedy compliment.
“I think he slowed down,” Handzus said with a laugh. “I was surprised, too, that I got open like that. But he had the great heads-up play. He waited, brought two guys to him and he made a great pass.”
Still, this was one more outing in which the Kings kept coming and erasing Blackhawks advantages. The Blackhawks had a two-goal lead twice in this game. Brent Seabrook’s power-play goal and Johnny Oduya’s rebound score put them up 2-0 in the first 3:40 of the contest. After Jarret Stoll got the Kings on the board, Brandon Saad gave the Hawks a 3-1 edge 11:06 into the game. But neither of those leads would hold, as the Kings, comeback specialists throughout these playoffs, looked like they were ready to chalk up another one.
[MORE - Despite Blackhawks win, Kings don't believe plan is broken]
After Jonathan Quick made a big save on one end, Marian Gaborik completed an odd-man rush on the other to cut the Blackhawks lead to 3-2. The Kings added to it in the second, with Dustin Brown tying it on a rebound and Tanner Pearson fooling Corey Crawford on a wrist shot to give the Kings a 4-3 advantage.
Quenneville said that, despite the deficit entering the third, the Blackhawks remained calm.
“We didn’t change our approach much,” he said. “We’ve been in tough situations before; we wanted to play the right way. We got behind in Games 2 and 3 and they picked us apart. We had more of a purpose; scoring early helped us. OT, I’ve seen a lot of games, been involved in a lot, but that may have been the greatest overtime I’ve ever seen.”
What set up that first overtime, and a little bit of the second one, was Smith’s rebound goal off Saad’s shot 1:17 into the third period that gave the Blackhawks and the United Center crowd life again. Both teams brought their best in overtime, the first of which included nearly eight minutes of play without a whistle.
Then Handzus ended it 2:07 into the second overtime.
[MORE - Muzzin absolutely annihilates Kruger]
As giddy as the Blackhawks were after Wednesday night’s outing, they know their work is nowhere near over. The Kings are still strong, still rolling all four lines – Kris Versteeg was benched for a majority of this one, just one reason the Blackhawks’ bench was shorter. They brought plenty on Wednesday. They’ll need to bring even more on Friday.
“We know what we’re capable of doing,” said Johnny Oduya, who had a goal and an assist. “The last couple of games we haven’t played up to our standards. Today was a step in the right direction and this is what it’s going to look like. We’re going to have to play like this every night to win. The next one will be the toughest game of the year.”