The Los Angeles Kings have been in all types of jams during the past two post-seasons. Just a few weeks ago, they even escaped the same 0-2 deficit they're now facing in the Western Conference finals.
"We've been here, what, three weeks ago?" forward Justin Williams asked, referring to the Kings' great escape in the first round against St. Louis. "Obviously it's not do-or-die [in Game 3], but it is."
Yet the defending Stanley Cup champions aren't sure they've tangled with an opponent that could match the depth and versatility of the Chicago Blackhawks, who might even be the team to end Los Angeles' 2 ½ months of perfection at home.
After back-to-back losses in Chicago, the Kings are hoping they can stay perfect at Staples Center in a crucial Game 3 on Tuesday night. The Kings have won 14 straight at home since March, and they've won seven straight home playoff games dating to last season's Stanley Cup clincher.
The Kings have no idea why they've been unbeatable at Staples Center, but they realize their repeat hopes depend on it.
"Home ice is something we've been able to rely on, and have in our back pocket," Williams said Monday after the Kings' team meeting at their training complex. "I'm [also] not sure why we went 10-1 on the road last year [in the playoffs]. Certainly our confidence is high for us coming back home. There's been a lot of success there. We've won every which way there, and it's going to have to continue."
Even two solid efforts in Chicago by coach Darryl Sutter's estimation weren't enough to turn back the Presidents' Trophy winners, who have won five straight post-season games after falling into a 1-3 hole against Detroit in the second round. The Blackhawks won both games of the conference finals in persuasive fashion, overcoming the Kings' greatest strengths along the way.
Chicago even chased Jonathan Quick out of Game 2 by scoring four goals against the Conn Smythe Trophy-winning goalie — something nobody had done in 34 straight playoff games over the past three years. Sutter acknowledged he pulled Quick partly to give him a brief rest for the remaining playoff grind.
The Blackhawks were reminded of the tenuous nature of any playoff lead in the second round, so they weren't brimming with overconfidence when they arrived on the West Coast.
"You look back at the St. Louis series, [and] they were up 2-0 coming to L.A.," Blackhawks defenceman Brent Seabrook said Monday. "We've got to continue to focus on the game [Tuesday] night. They're a great team, L.A. Quick is a great goaltender. We understand he's going to come back with a better game than he did last night. We have to continue to get pucks to him and make it tough on him."
The Kings have lost at home in regulation just four times in this entire lockout-shortened season, but the Blackhawks were responsible for arguably the biggest defeat of them all. Chicago ruined the Kings' Stanley Cup banner-raising ceremony in the season opener in January, and the Blackhawks' 5-2 victory catapulted them to the start that led them to the NHL's best regular-season record.
"It's been a long time since we played here, and it was a special day when we began the season here for them," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "There's some buildings in this league that can get real loud, get the crowd into it, and the team feeds off of that. I think there's more success this year on the home team's side in the playoffs. Hopefully we can get off to a great start and quiet it as best you can. It's tough on visiting teams trying to do that this year."
After the long flight Monday, the Blackhawks arrived at their Beverly Hills hotel for a night of relaxation before their attempt to break through at Staples Center. As usual, the Blackhawks set up a large players' lounge at their hotel, filling it with an eye-catching buffet and multiple televisions and video game consoles — all to promote team bonding.
"The Hawks do a good job of making it easy on us," forward Patrick Sharp said. "It's a fun atmosphere to go down there and hang around with your teammates. You don't see enough of each other in Chicago with the families, people doing their own thing. It's always been fun to be on the road, be together, thinking hockey all the time."
Although Quick blames himself for the Kings' road struggles, he isn't the real problem for the Kings, who have won a series after trailing 0-2 just twice in franchise history. Williams realizes the Kings aren't sustaining any offensive pressure on the Blackhawks, whose forechecking has kept the Kings pinned in their end for long stretches.
Los Angeles' scoring struggles are getting ugly, with just 29 goals in 15 playoff games — easily the lowest scoring average for any team that won a playoff round. It's not nearly enough to hang with the Blackhawks, whose talented lineup generates goals from all four lines and its defence.
The Kings have never been an offensive dynamo on the level of Chicago or Pittsburgh, but they didn't flounder like this in the regular season. Their top scorers in last season's playoffs also are struggling mightily this year: Star centre Anze Kopitar has just two goals in 15 games after enduring a lengthy goal-scoring slump to end the regular season, while captain Dustin Brown has a mere four points in the playoffs.
"It's pretty fair to say as a line, we're collectively in a slump," Brown said of his partnership with Kopitar and Williams. "We know what we need to do better. Getting into their offensive zone, our spacing is pretty significant. It's hard to play [without it], especially against a team like Chicago. When you don't have the spacing right, one guy eliminates the other guy."
Center Mike Richards missed Game 2 with symptoms from an apparent head injury, and the Kings won't say whether he'll play in Game 3. Richards, who hadn't missed a game all season, is Los Angeles' leading post-season scorer with 10 points.
At least Tyler Toffoli is an intriguing addition to the lineup in Richards' absence. The big rookie picked up a goal in Game 2 while playing alongside top goal-scorer Jeff Carter, who moved over to centre without Richards alongside him.
"Going back six games in the season, we've had trouble scoring," Sutter said. "It's not a home-road disparity at all. You know what? We're a good hockey club. We're not surprising anybody. There's no upsets now. We're trying to surprise the team that finished first overall."
The Kings' championship poise might be their greatest asset in the next two games. With the confidence of last season's 16-4 run through the playoffs still fresh in most players' minds, Sutter's club doesn't really get rattled — even after winning just twice in its last seven playoff games.
"You can draw on the fact we've been in this situation before," Brown said. "The series is long from over in our mindset."