Every time the Kings have had to be resilient during a sometimes-turbulent playoff journey this spring, they've bounced back emphatically.
They faced elimination six times in the first two rounds and not only escaped but thrived, gaining confidence as they learned how far they can push themselves and discovered the great depths of their grit and determination.
They've mastered what should have been the hard part. What seems like it should be easier — holding onto a lead in a series — proved beyond their grasp Wednesday.
Instead of leaving the United Center with a berth in the Stanley Cup Final and the Clarence Campbell bowl — the prize awarded to the Western Conference champion — the Kings left town with some regrets and another date with the Blackhawks on Friday at Staples Center. Chicago's 5-4, double-overtime victory postponed the Kings' clinching party and set up a sixth game in an entertaining series whose story lines have shifted as wildly from game to game as the momentum shifted during Wednesday's deliciously tense sudden-death play.
“It's different,” Kings forward Tanner Pearson said of trying to stay ahead in a series instead of catching up. “It's in the back of your head, but we've got to come out and play like we have to win to keep on going. I think that will help us.”
The defending champion Blackhawks played like they had to win because they did have to prevail in order to keep their season alive. Having faced the same urgency four times against San Jose and twice more against the Ducks, the Kings recognized what they were up against on Wednesday.
“They knew what they had to do. They're a desperate hockey team right now,” Pearson said. “We've got to match that and it's going to be a hard game next game, but we've got to be prepared.”
So many elements of Wednesday's game seemed drawn from the Kings' previous playoff adventures. They fell behind early on goals by Chicago defensemen Brent Seabrook and Johnny Oduya, rallied to pull even at 3-3 at 11:08 of the second period and took the lead two minutes after that on Pearson's goal from the right circle. It's a theme that has become familiar through 19 postseason contests.
But this one didn't have the same kind of happy ending for the Kings. The Blackhawks tied it at 4-4 on Ben Smith's rebound of a Brandon Saad shot at 1:17 of the third period and won it 2:04 into the second overtime on a backhander by former King Michal Handzus.
“Just losing in overtime, that stings a lot, knowing we could have had it so many times,” said defenseman Drew Doughty, who was superb in playing a game-high 39:04 and probably got his longest rest when he spent 43 seconds in the penalty box before Chicago scored its first goal.
“We had the lead going into the third, which you can't ask for much more than that. And to give up a goal like that, kind of early in the third is kind of a dagger. We had opportunities to win. We just didn't do the job.”
The Blackhawks, 8-1 at home during the playoffs, were boosted by a four-assist game from Patrick Kane and a forceful performance by Saad as they prolonged their reign for at least one more game. Coach Joel Quenneville, perhaps borrowing a page from the Kings' playoff-rally playbook, reconfigured his lines to get more balance and got a dynamo in the trio of Saad, Andrew Shaw and Kane. Quenneville also emphasized the need to play the right way, to not open it up late in the game and allow the Kings to knife through their defense as happened in Games 2 and 3.
“We had more of a purpose,” Quenneville said.
When that purpose is extending your season, it's a powerful motivator.
“It's win or go home for them. It's desperation time,” Kings right wing Justin Williams said. “We tried to match that as best we could and we just fell a bit short in overtime.”
Because they did, they'll have to again figure out a way to play from ahead and win. If they can't do it Friday, they'd have to return to Chicago on Sunday.
“We knew what we were up against,” Williams said. “We also know what's possible the next two games and we're going home to try and win a game. Instead of being deflated we're looking forward to it.”