Game 5 was looking like a killer.
With a chance to eliminate the defending champion Kings and advance to the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday, the Blackhawks took home ice the way you’d dream, scoring two goals before Los Angeles managed a shot.
But then, pffft.
The Kings slowly took control, slowing down the Hawks’ speed and interrupting their passing, forcing play deep and bodying up the Hawks.
Then came an opportunity to put away the offensively challenged Kings on a power play midway through the second period.
Instead, the Hawks surrendered a crowd-smothering short-handed goal as Dwight King beat a check by Patrick Sharp. Suddenly, it was 2-1 with half of regulation to go.
The Hawks had more chances to wrest back the game, but Marian Hossa couldn’t convert a couple glorious opportunities and the rest of the Hawks appeared stymied by the Kings’ checking and transition game.
The Hawks knew a berth in the Stanley Cup Final awaited them with a victory, but they seemed frozen at times, devoid of a killer instinct and ways to beat Jonathan Quick.
Still, they had a one-goal lead with 20 minutes to go. Champs protect that lead at home.
The Hawks couldn’t.
In fact, they couldn’t protect two one-goal leads, one of them excruciatingly late.
But somehow, after the blown third-period leads, missed chances and general foundering around the ice, the Hawks found a way. Champs do that.
Patrick Kane mercifully and dramatically ended the Western Conference finals at 11:40 of the second overtime, one-timing a perfect pass from Jonathan Toews to complete an extraordinary and timely hat trick.
The two players called out by their coach several days earlier delivered big for the second straight game.
And now the Hawks will meet the Boston Bruins in the first Cup final between Original Six teams since 1979.
The Hawks and Bruins are the same team, and then, they’re not.
Most immediately, this dream Final features combatants who finished off former recent champions in short series.
Despite some excruciating moments, the Hawks eliminated the Kings in five games Saturday. One night earlier, the Bruins finished a stunning sweep of Pittsburgh.
The Hawks whipped the top goalie the last two postseasons, while the Bruins allowed a mere two goals to the NHL’s highest-scoring team.
In earning the right to play for the Cup, each team faced a severe character test in an earlier round, requiring a miracle in a seven-game series against another Original Six opponent.
The Hawks faced three straight elimination games against rival Detroit, and still needed overtime to move on. The Bruins scored two late, impossible goals against Toronto before winning in overtime, as well.
When the series begins Wednesday in the United Center, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane figure to see a lot of massive defenseman Zdeno Chara. Boston goalie Tuukka Rask ought to be forced post to post by Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp. Corey Crawford can expect a lapful of ferocious power forward Milan Lucic.
The Stanley Cup finalists enter the championship round at their fastest and toughest, though the Hawks would rather emphasize fast, while the Bruins prefer tough. No matter. Both meet for hockey’s Holy Grail while skating at their best.
Or at least, their most clutch.