CHICAGO — Up and down they went, the Los Angeles Kings pushing for the Stanley Cup final, the Chicago Blackhawks trying to stay alive, both teams knowing every shift could be the last of the series. They traded chances. They tried to breathe. Twenty minutes of overtime took only 26 minutes and 45 seconds in real time. For one stretch of almost eight minutes, there were no whistles, only wows.
“I’ve seen a lot of games; I’ve been involved in a lot of games,” said Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, who played in 835 NHL games and has been a head coach for 1,472 more – regular season and playoffs combined. “That might have been the greatest overtime I’ve seen.”
And this is how the game ended 2:04 into double OT on Wednesday night: Michal Handzus, the oldest player on the ice at 37 years and two months, the man who had been demoted from second-line center because he couldn’t keep up with the pace, helped force a turnover in the neutral zone. He lumbered ahead as Patrick Kane passed to Brandon Saad, like the tortoise determined to beat the hare. He coasted into the open in front as Saad waited, waited, drew defenders to the right wing and found him with a pass. He put the puck on his backhand, flipped it past goaltender Jonathan Quick and gave the Blackhawks a 5-4 victory.
Told Saad had said he had speed through the middle, Handzus just laughed.
“I think he slowed down, so maybe it looked like it,” Handzus said. “I was surprised, too, that I got open like that.”
This is why we love hockey, and this is why we especially love the playoffs. They are full of surprises. The Kings still hold a 3-2 lead in the Western Conference final and can clinch on home ice Friday night. But who knows what’s going to happen? This is a matchup between the last two Stanley Cup champions – the Kings won in 2012, the Blackhawks last year – and there is no script, just skill and will and luck.
Through the first 4 3/4 periods of this series, the Blackhawks looked like they would make quick work of the Kings, as good as the Kings are. They won Game 1, 3-1. They led Game 2, 2-0. They had won 10 of their last 12 against L.A., including a five-game victory in last year’s Western Conference final. But the Kings got a bounce, rallied with six unanswered goals and won Game 2, 6-2, and then they won Game 3, 4-3, and Game 4, 5-2. Who saw that coming?
Both teams are known for coming back within games and within series. In the first round this year, the Blackhawks came back from a 2-0 series deficit against the St. Louis Blues, the Kings from a 3-0 series deficit against the San Jose Sharks. In the second round, the Kings came back from a 3-2 series deficit against the Anaheim Ducks. You know neither team will give in. You just don’t know how it will play out.
Facing elimination Wednesday night in Game 5, Quenneville juggled his defense pairings and created a new second line, bumping Handzus and putting Andrew Shaw between Saad and Kane. It worked. Saad was the best player on the ice, with a goal and an assist. Kane, who had only one assist in the series, had four assists. Shaw had two.
“Hopefully,” Quenneville said, “what we discovered today could be a line for a long time.”
The Blackhawks took leads of 2-0 and 3-1. The Kings came back and took a 4-3 lead, silencing the United Center. The Blackhawks tied it in the third, and the joint roared again. Neither goalie had been sharp all night, with Chicago’s Corey Crawford especially shaky at times, looking like he might even be hiding an injury. But both were stellar down the stretch and into the first OT as the shots piled up in a dead-even game.
With 11:19 to go in the first OT, play was stopped when the puck went into the netting. It didn’t stop again until 3:23 remained, after six shots and eight blocks and three misses and six hits and … whew.
“There’s not a lot of time when you get back to the bench to think a whole lot,” said Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith. “It’s just getting your rest when you’re there and getting some water, just knowing that every shift is a big one.”
There were only nine stoppages in the period.
“It was a ‘wow’ factor,” Quenneville said. “I think I appreciated it. Guys were working, and the pace was unbelievable. So it was good action. I guess I maybe had a little appreciation when there was a stoppage in play.”
The Kings desperately wanted to make the final – and “damn near got it,” said Kings coach Darryl Sutter. The Blackhawks desperately wanted to stave off summer. Handzus desperately wanted to contribute. He was still in the lineup for his penalty killing and faceoff prowess, but the PK had been struggling against the Kings and he had only one goal and one assist in 16 playoff games. He had not been nearly as good as he had been during last year’s Cup run. He played only 14:11 on Wednesday night, third-lowest among the Chicago forwards. But Quenneville threw him out for a half-shift on the left side in double OT, and what do you know?
“I’m not really happy how I played, but just got to be confident,” Handzus said. “It’s a lot of fun to be playing in the playoffs, and it’s conference finals, and you cannot just look at yourself all the time and be down and be disappointed. You’ve just got to be positive. If you don’t want to be positive, then probably you won’t get out of the slump or anything. So I stayed positive.”
And the Hawks stayed alive.