CHICAGO - A series which once seemed firmly in the hands of the Los Angeles Kings has been stretched to the limit. Now the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks will try to complete a monumental comeback when they host the Kings in Sunday's Game 7 battle at United Center.
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The Kings grabbed a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference finals after Monday's 5-2 home victory, but Chicago has responded with two close victories to even this best-of-seven set at three games apiece. The winner of Sunday's clash will meet the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup Finals, after the Blueshirts eliminated Montreal in six games for the Eastern Conference title.
Chicago, winner of two of the league's last four Stanley Cup titles, first staved off elimination with a 5-4 double-overtime win Wednesday on home ice and did it again with Friday's 4-3 decision in Los Angeles. The Blackhawks hope to complete the comeback Sunday in the Windy City, where the club boasts an 8-1 record this postseason and a 19-3 mark since the start of the 2013 playoffs.
The Blackhawks also hold a 13-0 mark after Game 4 in each of the past two postseasons and is seeking another successful comeback from down 3-1 after recording the first one in franchise history last spring. Chicago lost three of the first four games in last year's conference semifinals against Detroit, but won the final three tilts and claimed Game 7 in overtime en route to winning its second Cup since 2010.
If Chicago wins Sunday's contest it will become just the second team in NHL history to overcome a 3-1 series deficit and win the conference finals. Only the 2000 New Jersey Devils, who beat Philadelphia, have overcome a 3-1 series deficit in a conference final and advanced to the fourth and final round.
The Kings, meanwhile, hope to regroup Sunday and avoid being eliminated by Chicago in the West finals for a second straight year. Los Angeles, the 2012 Cup champions, fell in five games to the Blackhawks in 2013 and appeared well on its way towards exacting revenge for that loss before the last two games.
With the Game 6 loss, L.A. became just the third team in NHL history to have its first three playoff series advance to a seventh game in one playoff year. The 1993 Toronto Maple Leafs and 2002 Colorado Avalanche previously saw each of their in-conference playoff matchups reach Game 7s, with the Leafs losing to the Kings and Avs to the Red Wings.
"We've got to win. There is no other option," Kings star defenseman Drew Doughty said of Game 7. "I think we're going to have our best effort of the series next game. All of the guys are going to step up to the plate. Our leaders are going to lead the way. Everyone else is going to follow. We're going to have our best effort."
The Kings, of course, were only the fourth team in NHL history to erase a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series when they beat San Jose in the opening round and then came back from 3-2 down to eliminate Anaheim in seven games during the conference semis. Both of L.A.'s previous Game 7 victories in this postseason also came on the road.
"We know they're a resilient group," Chicago forward Patrick Kane said after leading his team to the Game 6 triumph. "They've won two Game 7s on the road in their first two series. It's going to be a tough one. Right now we're happy we got the win, but it doesn't mean anything because we haven't won anything yet. We'll get ready for the next one and we know they'll bring the best for Game 7."
Kane, last spring's Conn Smythe winner, has been a big part of Chicago's revival in this series, recording seven points over the last two games. After notching four assists in the Game 5 victory, Kane scored two goals and added an assist on Friday.
Kane assisted on the tying goal in Game 6 and then netted the game-winning score late in the third period to force tonight's winner-take-all battle. The speedy forward had been held without a point in the first three games of this series, but has amassed eight points (2G, 6A) over the last three contests.
Ben Smith and Duncan Keith added Game 6 tallies for the Blackhawks, while Corey Crawford picked up the win thanks to 26 saves.
Los Angeles scored the only goal of the first period before Chicago carried a 2-1 lead into the second intermission. The Kings then grabbed a 3-2 lead with a pair of goals in the first eight minutes of the third period before the Blackhawks mounted a comeback.
"I don't think anyone lost confidence or got down after those two goals they scored in the third," Crawford said. "If anything we kept pressing even harder. Some great shots by Duncs and Kaner, some great plays, and we were able to shut then down at the end."
Kane's slick pass on the left wing found Keith at the inner edge of the circle for a successful wrister to knot the game with 8:26 showing. Kane struck once more with 3:45 left in regulation. He trailed a Brandon Saad rush on the right wing, accepted a back pass, then moved from the circle into the middle and beat Jonathan Quick with a wrister to give the Blackhawks a 4-3 edge.
"It's unbelievable, I looked at him, I think it was about a minute left, I think there was a stoppage of play and I almost started laughing," Toews said of Kane. "It's amazing what he can do in these big games, when our season is on the line and nobody else seems to be able to do it the same way he does it, it's pretty amazing."
Doughty, Dwight King and Alec Martinez scored for the Kings, while Quick stopped only 21 shots in defeat. Doughty has collected seven points (3G, 4A) in the last five games.
The loss didn't deter Doughty from adding confidently: "We've had two chances to close out this series and we're not going to blow the third one."
The Stanley Cup Finals will begin Wednesday night with the Rangers visiting the winner of Sunday's Game 7 for the first two tests of the championship round.