All around Jonathan Toews, people were losing their minds, overwhelmed by the moment before them late in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final on Friday.
Staples Center had been rocking as loud as it ever had for hockey for the past 30 minutes as one of the most spellbinding periods played out before the fans who jammed every nook and cranny of the building. The wall of sound cascading down upon the playing surface regularly drowned out whistles and sometimes even the PA system.
What was Toews, the Chicago Blackhawks' captain, doing? Trying to stop from giggling, it seems.
"I think there was about a minute left and I think there was a stoppage in play and I almost started laughing," Toews said, explaining he was looking at teammate Patrick Kane at the time and marveling at the impact Kane had on the game. Kane set up the tying goal by defenseman Duncan Keith and scored the game-winner during a 4:41 span in the third period of a 4-3 victory.
Toews' team held a one-goal lead and was hanging on for dear life against a Los Angeles Kings team which not too long ago held a 3-1 stranglehold on the series. Toews knew he would have to win a couple of big faceoffs to help his team survive and force a Game 7 in a series for the ages. But Toews couldn't help but reflect on what had transpired in the game's first 59 minutes, and the sheer wonder of it all forced him to stifle a laugh.
It's understandable. It's hard not to at least smile, if not break out into a chuckle, while considering the wonderment that has unfolded in the first six games of this series.
These teams, the past two Stanley Cup champions, have been almost indistinguishable in their greatness.
After Chicago won the first game, the Kings staked a claim at being the greatest with three straight wins, but the Blackhawks took those shots and answered with a two-game counterattack, setting up a winner-take-all game Sunday at United Center (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS).
"This is the 'Wow' factor in this series, especially the last two games," said Joel Quenneville, the Chicago coach. "We've have two competitive teams that have experience, have experienced players, experience in the situation.
"You know, it's been amazing. I mean, as good as it gets."
On this night, the two teams battered each other over and over again. They exchanged the lead three times. The third period was almost as good as the first overtime from two nights earlier, a 20-minute stretch that Quenneville, a hockey lifer, said was one of the best overtimes he has ever experienced.
"It was kind of an emotional roller coaster," Chicago center Ben Smith said. He was speaking about Game 6, but could have just as easily been thinking about the series as a whole.
The ups and downs in this series have made it theater of the highest order.
The superstars have been super.
Nobody has been better in this series than Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, who showed his brilliance again Friday by scoring the goal that made it 2-2 and setting up the go-ahead goal less than three minutes later. He was answered by Kane, who has been the best player across the past 72 hours and has two goals and seven points in the two elimination games.
"There were some great plays in the third period by a lot of great players," Los Angeles coach Darryl Sutter said. "Kane made a couple. Keith made one. Drew made a couple. You know, their goalie [Corey Crawford] made some big saves."
Ah, the goalies.
They have been good and bad, sometimes in the same game. Crawford started like a Conn Smythe candidate in Game 1, but was merely mortal in each of the next three games. His counterpart, Jonathan Quick, has made some spectacular saves in each game -- but has also given up some spectacularly bad goals.
The role players have had moments as well.
Michal Handzus, at age 37, found an unexpected burst of speed and scored in the second overtime Wednesday to keep Chicago's season alive. Dwight King gave the Kings a first-period lead Friday. Smith gave Chicago its first lead in the second period, flubbing a shot but then banking the puck off the back of Quick's skates and into the net.
The coaches have never stopped pushing buttons from the opening faceoff of Game 1 until the final whistle Friday. Quenneville has changed his personnel and jumbled his lines. His decision to put Kane with Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw in Game 5 looks inspired. Sutter has made adjustments, both minor and major, to counter many of the things the Blackhawks normally do well. He has rendered tame their potent power play for long stretches and has found weaknesses in a penalty kill that had dominated Chicago's first two opponents this spring.
It all culminates in what every hockey fan covets: a winner-take-all Game 7 that will be played in the United Center, which will be a madhouse of epic proportions.
Thirty-eight players, some good, some great, will take the ice and try to be the difference-maker, trying to propel their team to greater glory and a place in the Stanley Cup Final against the New York Rangers.
For Chicago, it is a chance to try to defend the crown that has rested so comfortably on their head all year. For Los Angeles, it is the chance to be the first team in League history to win three Game 7s -- all on the road, no less -- to reach the championship round.
"Hey, it's been a great series," Sutter said. "Now it comes down to one game."
It will be one last game to savor, an appropriate exclamation point to a series that has been among the best ever played in the rich postseason history of the National Hockey League.
Author: Shawn Roarke | Director, Editorial
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