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Blackhawks on brink of elimination after Game 4 loss

Updated: May 26, 2014 11:59PM



LOS ANGELES — Joel Quenneville went for his nuclear option. He got a nuclear meltdown.

A disastrous first period pushed the Blackhawks to the brink of elimination on Monday night, as the Los Angeles Kings ran them out of Staples Center with a 5-2 victory in Game 4 of the Western Conference final. The Hawks now trail 3-1 in the series, and must win three straight to get back to the Stanley Cup Final, starting Wednesday at the United Center.

But the Hawks need a lot more than just a little home cooking to get back into this series. Just like they needed a lot more than the long-awaited reunion of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane — Joel Quenneville’s “in case of emergency” glass-smash — on the top line to win Game 4. After looking overmatched for three straight games, their problems run far deeper than a stagnant offense. A powerless power play, a porous penalty kill, lifeless defense and some poor puck-handling all played a role as the Kings raced out to a 4-0 lead and never looked back.

“It was a tough situation we put ourselves in,” Hawks captain Jonathan Toews said.

But Toews wasn’t fuming as he said it. There was no glare in his eyes, no spittle flying from his mouth. In fact, the Hawks dressing room sounded and felt an awful lot like it did one year ago this week, after a borderline embarrassing Game 4 loss on the road to Detroit put them in a 3-1 series hole. Just like then, the Hawks were calm and composed. Just like then, they sounded more confident than concerned. Just like then, Toews talked about getting a few “bounces,” and getting their “swagger” back.

“We still feel good about our team in here, and we all know we’ve done it before,” Patrick Kane said.

That’s true. And it’d be foolish to write off the Hawks, no matter how faint their pulse.

But the Kings aren’t the Wings. They’re a championship club, they’re confident, and they’ve proven to be closers.

“We’re a really good team, too,” Kings winger Tyler Toffoli said. “We believe in every single guy in this room. We’re a confident group. We’re not trying to focus on their team, we’re trying to focus on ours.”

Sounds a lot like the kind of talk that tends to come out of the Hawks’ room — as good a sign as any that this incarnation of the Kings might be the Hawks’ most daunting challenge yet.

The Hawks, as they have all series, came out strong. But an early power play actually stunted any momentum they had built, and the Kings took advantage when Marian Hossa (with an assist from Kings defenseman Jake Muzzin) ran into Kings goalie Jonathan Quick. Muzzin scored on the ensuing power play as Brent Seabrook failed to move Jeff Carter out of Corey Crawford’s line of sight — the first time all series the Kings scored first — and the Kings were on their way.

Marian Gaborik made it 2-0 2:13 later, after Duncan Keith’s turnover allowed Anze Kopitar to fling a puck toward the crease, where Gaborik redirected it past Crawford. After Patrick Sharp took a roughing penalty later in the period, Dustin Brown outworked the Hawks defense for position in the crease and swept in a Justin Williams rebound for a 3-0 lead after one period.

The Hawks gave Crawford no help at all, but at that point, the Kings had scored three goals on just six shots.

“Clearly, there are some moments where we make mistakes, and it just kind of compounds on itself and it keeps ending up in the back of our net,” Toews said.

The second period was less awful for the Hawks, but once Drew Doughty beat Crawford from the point at the 12:43 mark for a 4-0 lead — as Dwight King and Williams stood unmolested in front of Crawford, and behind Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson — it was pretty much over. Brandon Saad roofed a nifty backhand past Quick to breathe a little life into the Hawks 80 seconds later. And a Bickell goal midway through a mostly dominant third made it 4-2, but the hole was too deep. The Kings added a Tanner Pearson empty-netter with 1:02 left for the final margin.

The Hawks now find themselves in a familiar position. As Keith put it, “It wouldn’t be worth winning the Stanley Cup if you didn’t have to go through any adversity.” But this might be the stiffest challenge yet for a Hawks team that’s risen to so many in the past.

“Just don’t look at the big picture,” Toews said. “If we do, obviously we don’t like what we see. We’ve just got to focus on the next game. We’re still alive in this series. There’s no time to feel sorry for ourselves. Teams have come back from this situation before, even our team, even this group. So that belief and that confidence has to be there. We’ve just got to go do it.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus



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