CHICAGO – No matter how this one plays out in the end, Joel Quenneville will at least appreciate the show the Blackhawks and Los Angeles have put on the Western Conference final.
For pure theater, it’s hard to match this.
A wild series between the two most recent champions will come to a close with one final act Sunday, a seventh game at the United Center to decide who will advance to the Stanley Cup fDinal.
“The quality of the hockey has been fun to watch and (it’s) been fun to be a part of it at the same time,” Quenneville, the Blackhawks’ coach, said Saturday.
The Blackhawks won a double-overtime thriller at home and took Game 6 on Friday night in Los Angeles, 4-3, to wipe out a 3-1 series deficit, sending it back to Chicago.
Now, it’s win-or-go home for both teams.
Whoever prevails will host the New York Rangers in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday night.
The Kings, who dropped the first three games against San Jose in the opening round and went the distance with Anaheim, hope to become the first team to win three Game 7s on the way to the Stanley Cup finals.
“We’re using all our lifelines so far, and we plan on getting the job done yet again,” Los Angeles’ Justin Williams said.
If the Hawks win Sunday, it will be the second straight year they advanced after falling behind 3-1 in a series.
Last year, they dropped three of the first four against Detroit in the conference semifinals before taking Game 7 in overtime on a goal by Brent Seabrook after Niklas Hjalmarsson had one disallowed late in regulation. The Hawks went on to take out the Kings in the conference final before beating Boston for its second Stanley Cup in four years.
The Hawks looked like they were just about out of it after dropping Game 4. Instead, they jumped back into it with two thrilling victories, pushing a thrilling series to the limit.
“You can feel it’s high-level hockey that’s played for sure,” Hjalmarsson said. “They’re a machine-like team. They bring the same effort to every single game so we just have to try to match that. I really think this series deserves a Game 7, and I think the crowd deserves it, too. And I think it’s going to be a great finish to a great finish to a great series.”
It’s coming down to one after the Hawks pulled out two nail-biters.
There was that double-overtime victory in Game 5 at home with Michal Handzus scoring the winner, and Game 6 Friday was about as tense. The Blackhawks survived thanks to a late surge after the teams traded leads in the third period, with Patrick Kane setting up Duncan Keith for the tying goal and then firing in the winner from a patch of ice near the painted Stanley Cup logo with 3:45 left.
“We know that we can still beat this Chicago Blackhawks team,” Drew Doughty said. “But we also know it’s not going to be easy either. They’re going to have their best game in this Game 7, especially in their home rink.”
It would help if they contained Kane.
He has come up big in the past two games with seven points after being held to just one in the first four games. He had two goals and an assist Friday and four assists in Game 5, compared to just one assist through the first four games.
He’s been able to find at least some open ice, something he wasn’t able to do earlier in the series, and the Blackhawks are feeding off that.
“We have to do the same things we did in the first four games, not the last two – check hard and deny him the puck, and when he has the puck, give him the least amount of time possible,” defenseman Willie Mitchell said.
Now, this series between two powerhouses comes down to one final game, and both teams have come out on top in tough spots.
The Kings are 6-0 in elimination games this year. The Blackhawks have won nine of their past 11 elimination games.
“Competitive guys, they find a way,” Quenneville said. “(Friday) night is a good example. Third period, it doesn’t look good and they don’t change their approach. We know we have some guys that can make plays and have some ability to score. ... We’re playing a real good team that has a lot of similar attributes as we do, but we have to give our guys (credit for) what they’ve done, what they’ve accomplished and how they handle these situations.”