One major factor in last year's Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Kings and the Chicago Blackhawks was Chicago's quest to find a strong second line. After a few games of putting Michal Handzus down the middle there, they switched things up to put Andrew Shaw between Brandon Saad and Patrick Kane. It nearly won them the series.
Chicago wasn't satisfied, and got themselves a new second-line center over the offseason. Tonight, he was the difference in a 4-1 victory at Staples Center.
The game's first blow was landed by none other than Daniel Carcillo, though. It's easy to forget that Carcillo was a legitimately useful player for LA at the start of last season, before he fell out of favor and was traded to the New York Rangers for a seventh-rounder. He's back in Chicago, the place where he was traded from to LA, and his goal was one that showed some modicum of talent! He one-timed Bryan Bickell's pass at Quick, and knocked a high rebound out of the air and in. Carcillo has been a positive possession player for the Hawks this season, and that's all the praise I can possibly muster for Daniel Carcillo in one article.
None of the Kings' eight first-period shots were very threatening, and aside from a couple of power plays, they never really found sustained pressure. Chicago made their struggles more difficult when Brad Richards scored a goal of the ugly variety. Jonathan Quick dawdled behind his net, and Kris Versteeg beat Matt Greene to the puck behind the net as Quick struggled back. Robyn Regehr had been offering help on the other side below the goal line, and he had nowhere near enough time to get back and cover Richards, though Mike Richards was able to backcheck and force the other Richards into a quick shot from a bad angle. Quick was still struggling to get in position and left a small hole open on the near post, and the shot got through to make it 2-0.
On to the second period, where Jordan Nolan was clearly threatened by the goal-scoring escapades of the Kings' former thirteenth forward. Nolan was only in the lineup because... sigh... Marian Gaborik was a late scratch due to injury. Gaborik was originally believed to be stricken by a (non-mumps) illness, but as it turns out, it is yet another upper-body injury. Anze Kopitar (a game-high 71.43% Corsi) was unfazed by his linemate's absence, and Nolan helped ease our agony somewhat with a goal early in the second. Jake Muzzin is racking up the assists, and he picked up another one when Nolan deflected a shot about halfway up the shaft of his stick through the legs of Corey Crawford.
Just over two minutes later, the Blackhawks' second line fired back. Here's the moment where it started to look really bad for the Kings' defense:
The first line essentially gave the puck away and jumped off the ice, leaving Regehr and Jamie McBain to defend a quick counter-attack. They didn't roll out the red carpet or anything, but Chicago moved the puck beautifully between four players, with Patrick Kane carrying the puck in, Versteeg and Roszival getting assists, and Richards converting the final feed into a wide-open net.
After LA played a composed defensive third period on the road against Minnesota, the Blackhawks returned the favor tonight. LA only mustered four shots against Chicago in the final 20 minutes, as the guys in red consistently got into shooting lanes and broke up any spells of pressure the Kings tried to start. Brandon Saad's empty-netter was a mere formality, as the Kings definitely weren't getting two more goals down the stretch. Carcillo appeared to take it as a personal victory, waving goodbye to the Kings fans after getting in a fight with Brayden McNabb at game's end. Whatever makes him happy, I guess.
I'm gonna repeatedly tell myself that if Alec Martinez had been in the lineup he would have gotten a hat trick and the game-winning overtime goal. The truth? Darryl Sutter's proclamations about how amazing Chicago is definitely held true yesterday.