Seven questions for Blackhawks-Kings Game 7
CHICAGO -- Game 7 is the only fitting ending to this unforgettable Western Conference Final between the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks.
The best-of-7 Stanley Cup Playoff series is tied 3-3 with the deciding game Sunday at United Center (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS). The winner will advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
Everything is on the line for these teams, who have been equals of each other in almost every available metric. Like great heavyweight boxers, they have spent the first six rounds probing the opponent's weaknesses and defending their shortcomings as best as possible.
Some knockout punches have been landed, for sure. Los Angeles scored six straight goals in Game 2 to even the series, playing 22 minutes of superior hockey out of 60 that night. The Kings followed with two wins to take a stranglehold on the series, but the Blackhawks have found ways to get up and inflict damage of their own.
In each of the past two wins, Chicago has erased a third-period deficit. Each time, Los Angeles could envision the fourth win necessary to end the series and eliminate the defending champion while gaining a spot in the Final against the New York Rangers, which begins Wednesday. Each time, the Blackhawks, led by Patrick Kane, found a way to survive.
Now the ultimate elimination game has arrived. The Kings have squandered their margin of error and Sunday will be hockey's greatest spectacle: a win-or-go-home game for each team.
Who will win? Who will go home? That will be decided during the passion play which will evolve during three or more hours at United Center.
While we wait for the answers, here are seven questions for Game 7:
1. Will 'Mr. Game 7' steal the show?
The numbers for Kings forward Justin Williams in Game 7s tell the story: six goals, six assists and six wins in six NHL Game 7s.
Williams scored the first goal and had an assist in the 6-2, Game 7 rout of the Anaheim Ducks in the second round. He had an assist against the San Jose Sharks in the first-round clincher. He delivers in these situations so regularly it is now expected of him.
Playing on the Kings' third line, he's become the top player among their bottom-six forwards, and that's an area where the Kings can gain an advantage against the Blackhawks.
2. Who is going to make history?
One of these teams is going to accomplish something no one has in the history of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Blackhawks can become the first team to rally from a 3-1 deficit and win a series two years in a row.
The Kings can become the first team to win three Game 7s on the road in one postseason, and the first to play the full 21 games possible and advance to the Stanley Cup Final. Two teams, the 2002 Colorado Avalanche and the 1993 Toronto Maple Leafs, reached this point then lost Game 7 of the conference final.
3. Which goalie will blink?
The goaltending matchup has been fascinating. Chicago's Corey Crawford and Los Angeles' Jonathan Quick have taken turns playing hero and goat.
The overall numbers for them are not great. Crawford has allowed 21 goals and has an .884 save percentage, but he might have been playing some of his best hockey of the series in Game 6, denying the Kings on several great chances in a 4-3 win.
Quick has allowed 19 goals and has an .886 save percentage. He allowed two goals on three shots in the third period of Game 6, giving up a lead. He has allowed seven goals in six elimination games this season and has stopped 74 of 77 shots in two Game 7 victories.
4. Who emerges as an early Conn Smythe favorite?
The winner of this game will be favored to win the Stanley Cup. What happens in the Final always has a large bearing on who wins the Conn Smythe Trophy, but it doesn't hurt to be a top player in the first three rounds.
Chicago's best at this point are forwards Kane and Jonathan Toews. Not only are they the top two scorers on the Blackhawks in the postseason, they've each scored some huge goals. Kane has been incredible in the past two games, with seven points.
Los Angeles defenseman Drew Doughty and forward Anze Kopitar have essentially been co-MVPs for its entire run. Kopitar leads the NHL with 23 points and has a faced world-class center in each round, and Doughty was probably having the best postseason of any defenseman in the League before his monster Game 5 and heroics in Game 6.
5. Whose second line will reign supreme?
The Kings struck first when its second line of Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson and Jeff Carter took over the final 22 minutes of Game 2, turning a two-goal deficit into a 6-2 victory and stealing home-ice advantage. Of the six goals, Carter scored three and Toffoli had one.
In Game 3, they did it again. Carter and Toffoli scored, and the line finished with five points in the Kings' 4-3 win. In Game 5, Pearson scored, and the Kings won 5-2 to put the Blackhawks on the ropes.
Chicago coach Joel Quenneville shuffled his second line looking for a solution. He moved Andrew Shaw up to join Kane and Brandon Saad. The results were immediate and stunning. Saad scored in Game 5, and Kane had a career-best four assists when his team won 5-4 in OT. Two nights later, Kane had two goals, including the game-winner, and an assist for seven points in the two elimination games.
6. How crazy will United Center be?
United Center is not the original "Madhouse on Madison," but during the past five years it has earned its legacy to venerable Chicago Stadium.
In Game 5, the Blackhawks said the support of the crowd pushed them to victory. During the fast and furious overtime period, the United Center was as loud as it has been during any point of the six Stanley Cup Final games played there since 2010.
Sunday night it will be even louder. When Jim Cornelison takes the ice to sing the "Star-Spangled Banner," the arena will be a roiling cauldron of fury designed to intimidate the Kings and inspire the Blackhawks. The noise will end only if the Blackhawks fall too far behind for a reasonable comeback to be in the cards.
7. Who will be the unlikely hero?
Game 7 lore is full of unlikely heroes.
Stephane Matteau scored one of the most famous goals in hockey history with his double-overtime winner for the Rangers in the 1994 Eastern Conference Final. Mike Rupp scored two goals for the New Jersey Devils in Game 7 of the 2003 Stanley Cup Final against the Ducks. Countless others have been immortalized for similar contributions.
Kings forward Dwight King scored the first goal in Game 6, and defenseman Alec Martinez gave Los Angeles a third-period lead.
Each of these teams is incredibly deep and willing to run four forward lines, so the candidates for an unlikely hero are bountiful.