Hawks lose 5-2 and face elimination - what happened?

Hawks lose 5-2 and face elimination - what happened?

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

In a contest of extreme importance the Los Angeles Kings scored three goals on their first six shots and skated away with a 5-2, Game 4 victory. The Chicago Blackhawks must win on Wednesday night or their season will end.

Anyone who has watched this series should not be surprised the Kings are one win away from advancing to the Cup Final. Los Angeles won the Stanley Cup in 2012 and have a better club now. Some of their young defensemen are a couple of years older and wiser. Their blueline leader is Drew Doughty, who is one of the best in the game and he is only 24-years-old.

There hasn’t been a repeat Stanley Cup winner since 1997-1998 when the Detroit Red Wings pulled it off. With less than 10 minutes to go in the second period of Game 2 my thoughts turned to the possibility of the Blackhawks being able to become repeat champions. That was only six days ago, but so much has changed since then.

The Kings overcame a 2-0 deficit in Game 2 by scoring six straight goals and have never been in jeopardy of losing a game since. On Monday night the Kings looked like they were skating with a man advantage during much of the opening 40 minutes. Los Angeles has played an efficient, effective game and in all aspects have outplayed the Blackhawks.

The Kings have been the deeper club as Joel Quenneville is still scrambling line combinations looking for a silver bullet. The fact is Quenneville, for the first time in years, doesn’t have the best roster. That’s not to say the Kings have the better high-end skill but after Chicago’s top two lines, more accurately after the top line, it hasn’t been close.

Possibly what is more surprising is the Kings defense has been hands down better than the Blackhawks. Los Angeles has a top defense but Robyn Regeher, one of their better defenders is out injured. Even without Regeher they still have outperformed their Chicago counterparts.

Then there is Jonathan Quick who has outdueled Corey Crawford in the past three games. Plus the Kings power play and penalty kill has been much better than that of the Blackhawks.

In total the Hawks deserve to be exactly where they are at, one loss away from a summer vacation.

It is near impossible to repeat, but after watching this group closely for the past five years they deserve the respect to not be counted out yet. If somehow they could win three in a row and advance it would be an epic accomplishment. In all likelihood the Kings won’t lose three consecutive games.

Joel Quenneville was asked before Game 4 if his team was tired. Quenneville gave the only answer he could and said no. In my view the Blackhawks show all the signs of being out of gas.

The Hawks can’t seem to play a full 60 minutes and they fade in crunch time. The Kings appear to be the faster club because the Blackhawks are chasing the puck much of the time. It isn’t only the Hawks feet that are moving slowly, they show many signs of mental fatigue. Taking bad penalties, poor defensive coverage, not finishing off close range scoring chances and losing leads are problematic signs.

In Game 4 the Kings scorers were wide open near the Chicago goal, and they were able to fire away at will from inside the blueline. The Hawks can’t get shots through to Quick and their fast transition game has been seldom seen.

All signs seem to point to a low gas tank but what if Quenneville is correct and it isn't fatigue?

Although it seems hard to believe this highly competitive group has become complacent that is a far bigger concern. There has been chatter about players needing to bring more urgency. If so players have gotten too comfortable here and it is time for some changes.

Maybe this club thinks they are so good they can turn it on when needed. It would be foolish to be believe that is the case because there have been only a handful of times all season the Hawks were dominant for 60 minutes.

This time the Blackhawks ran into a club with a head coach who plays the regular season to prepare for the playoffs. Quenneville saw early on he had to use his best players hard to try to keep pace with St. Louis and Colorado and in the end the Hawks finished behind both.

Quenneville leans heavily on his core players who aren't old but not as young as they were. Maybe not being able to sustain a high battle level has to do with logging many minutes over the past two seasons rather than a lack of will.

This wasn’t a season when the Blackhawks brought younger players up and gave them time to learn. Quenneville stuck in Michal Handzus as a second line center throughout the season. In the most important game of the season Handzus played 2:52 at even strength and had only 4:28 of total ice time. That left journeyman Peter Regin to skate shifts on the second line at center.

All season Patrick Kane drew the short straw when it came to getting an offensive center. In this series it has finally caught up to Kane who can’t seem to buy a goal.

The third line hasn’t been missing for the majority of the year. This spring the Hawks don’t have the best bottom six forwards in the NHL. That was the case in 2010 and 2013, but this time not so.

Quenneville hasn’t been able to find the right mix although he has been searching for awhile. Going into the playoffs it wasn’t as if a new face would jump out and be a playoff hero. This year it was more a case of if the Hawks could repeat with only three effective lines. In reality three effective lines has turned into two at most. So at every turn things have unraveled and when things go bad there is enough blame to pass around.

After winning a Stanley Cup and then to be able to get back to the Conference Final this season shouldn't be considered a failure. That said the bar is set very high here. One has to wonder how many changes will take place this summer if the Hawks fall to Los Angeles.

It seemed like Stan Bowman’s big pre-trade deadline acquisition, Kris Versteeg was a good get, especially so because the Hawks only had to pay half his salary. For whatever reason Versteeg has never been able to fit in. Not that he is the primary fault but the Blackhawks winning percentage slipped since Versteeg’s acquisition.

Last summer both Michal Rozsival and Handzus were awarded contract extensions. Most likely because they were big reasons why the Hawks won another Cup. But neither has been able to play to the same level.

No need to point only at the older folk, Andrew Shaw, Brandon Saad and Nick Leddy have all had up and down years. Marcus Kruger had another fine season but he seems injured now. At least his lack of ice time in this series would indicate so.

It appears the Hawks have run into a buzz saw.

The Kings aren’t the Blues or the Wild who often fail in the playoffs. Los Angeles is a club with winning know-how and recent Cup experience. They are well coached, and it isn’t a stretch to think Quenneville has been out-dueled by Darryl Sutter.

Maybe as much as anything else facing St. Louis in the playoffs could be Western Conference kryptonite. The Kings had the misfortune of playing the Blues last season before they faced the Blackhawks. The boys from Los Angeles came to Chicago banged up on and drained. The Hawks made it quick and sent them packing in five games.

With a win in Game 5 the Kings could do exactly the same to the Blackhawks.

I will be back on Thursday morning and you can follow me on Twitter @AlCimaglia.

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