The Chicago Blackhawks were suitably impressed by the Los Angeles Kings' 15-game home winning streak. They also respected the defending Stanley Cup champions' ability to win eight straight playoff games at Staples Center.
All that admiration just made the Blackhawks even more eager to be the team that ended the Kings' roll - and now they're one win away from knocking off the champs.
Marian Hossa scored the tiebreaking goal early in the third period, and the Blackhawks moved to the brink of the Stanley Cup finals with a 3-2 victory Thursday night in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals, handing the Kings their first home loss since March 23.
"It's an impressive streak, especially in the playoffs when the level of competition goes up a lot,'' said Chicago defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, who had two assists. "It feels really good to break it.''
When Bryan Bickell's shot slipped out of Jonathan Quick's usually inescapable glove and trickled into the Los Angeles net early, the Blackhawks figured their time might have arrived. When Hossa's shot eluded Quick for the go-ahead goal two periods later, the Blackhawks knew they had cracked both their foes' star goalie and the formula for winning at Staples Center.
"They were playing so well at home, and to finally break that streak, we're happy about it,'' Hossa said. "We knew about it. We talked about it before the game. We were hoping to break it, and we got it.''
Corey Crawford made 19 saves, and Patrick Kane tapped in the tying goal as Chicago rallied from a second-period deficit. Bickell had a goal and an assist for the top-seeded Blackhawks, who took a 3-1 series lead even without Duncan Keith, their suspended ice-time leader and top defenseman.
"We knew our defense was going to step up, and they did,'' Bickell said. "We had a good feeling coming in. We had a bitter taste from the last game. They had a big start, but we stuck with it and eventually got it back.''
Game 5 is Saturday night in Chicago.
Slava Voynov and Dustin Penner scored for the Kings, who had the NHL's longest home postseason winning run since 2009. The champs know they're in trouble after failing to hold on to a late lead in front of their Conn Smythe Trophy-winning goalie.
"It's an incredibly skilled team,'' Kings defenseman Rob Scuderi said of Chicago. "We're not getting into something we didn't know. When you turn the puck over like that at the blue lines, with the skill they have, it's only a matter of time before they put one on the scoreboard. Hopefully we learned our lesson, and we've got to win the next one.''
The Blackhawks thrived without Keith, who served a one-game suspension for high-sticking Jeff Carter in the face during the second period of Game 3. Sheldon Brookbank filled in while Chicago played strong team defense in front of Crawford, allowing just two shots by the desperate Kings in the third period.
"Right from the first couple shifts, we were moving our feet, playing with speed,'' said defenseman Brent Seabrook, who led Chicago with 26:20 of ice time. "We were getting in on the forecheck and making good plays. It was big for our group to come back with a good effort.''
Los Angeles hadn't lost a playoff game at home since Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals last season, winning nine straight overall. The Kings also had been outstanding when playing with a lead in front of Quick, who stopped 25 shots, but Los Angeles uncharacteristically surrendered that 2-1 lead late in the second period.
The high-scoring Kane ended his seven-game goal drought in a quiet postseason by charging into the crease to tap home the tying goal on a rebound of Hjalmarsson's shot and Bickell's deflection late in the second period.
After Los Angeles killed a penalty to open the third period, Michal Handzus caught the Kings napping and set up a break with the speedy Hossa, who ripped a precise shot for his seventh goal of the postseason.
"That's one thing that (coach) Darryl (Sutter) has been hard on us for right now,'' Kings defenseman Drew Doughty said. "We're making too many turnovers, in the neutral zone especially. That was a cause of two of the goals. We made turnovers and they came back down on odd-man rushes and scored. If we want to win, it's something we can't be doing.''
The Kings played their third straight game without center Mike Richards, who has an apparent concussion after a big hit from Chicago's Dave Bolland in the series opener. Richards was the Kings' leading postseason scorer with 10 points when he got hurt.
Los Angeles' unbeaten stretch at home ended in unusual fashion with the blown lead, and the low-scoring Kings' title defense could be over in two days. The NHL hasn't had a repeat champion since the Detroit Red Wings in 1998, and Los Angeles has managed just eight goals in four games against the powerful Blackhawks.
"They didn't have many great scoring chances,'' Crawford said. "We mostly kept them to the outside. It was great for us to shut them down.''
Chicago needs one win in three games to advance to its second Stanley Cup finals appearance since 1992. The Blackhawks have been mostly rolling since their 5-2 victory in the season opener at Los Angeles in January, ruining the Kings' banner-raising ceremony.
The Blackhawks hadn't won a playoff round in the past two seasons since their Stanley Cup triumph, replenishing their roster on the fly around their talented young core.
Just nine players remain from the championship team, but it's safe to say the rebuild is complete for a team that won its second Presidents' Trophy with a 36-7-5 regular season, followed by a gutsy rally from a 1-3 series deficit against Detroit to escape the second round.
Los Angeles' fourth line created the first goal just 3:28 in when Kyle Clifford passed from behind Chicago's net to Voynov, who skated in alone for a slap shot past Crawford. The goal was Voynov's sixth of the postseason, extending his single-season playoff record for Kings defensemen.
The Blackhawks evened it on an innocent-looking play by Bickell, whose wobbly shot somehow got out of Quick's glove for his eighth goal of the postseason. Bickell is on a remarkable playoff run before unrestricted free agency this summer, scoring a goal in each of the past three games and five of seven overall.
The Kings went back ahead early in the second period on a goal by their newly constituted big line around Carter, who drove the net while Chicago's Nick Leddy failed to knock him off the puck. Penner swept home the rebound of Carter's backhand when Brookbank couldn't move him out of the crease.
Chicago tied it late in the period when Hjalmarsson launched a long shot through Bickell's screen. Kane tapped it home for a much-needed boost for the prolific scorer who had managed just two goals in the playoffs after getting 23 in the regular season.