Nothing is more stunning in the NHL postseason than watching a team gain confidence -- and seeing another completely lose it.
On the one hand, you have the Los Angeles Kings, a team that lost the first three games against San Jose before coming back to win four straight and defeat the Sharks. Down 3-2 to Anaheim, after losing three straight again, they won the next two, including Game 7 on the road.
An exhausted Kings team, rather predictably, lost Game 1 in Chicago. With the Hawks up 2-0 and dominating Game 2, a third goal might have put them away, but Jonathan Quick beat Brent Seabrook on a 2-on-1 and the Kings stayed in the game.
A simple play and an ugly goal off the skate of Justin Williams near the end of the second period in Game 2 gave Los Angeles all it needed to regain some confidence.
"Sometimes it's just one break that changes your entire outlook," Williams said. "That was a big break."
The Kings went into the locker room between periods and reminded each other what they're capable of, and they went out in the third period and buried the Hawks with 5 straight goals.
It was that close. The Hawks were that close to gaining a 2-0 series lead and reminding the Kings that the Hawks took them apart last year. Just a third goal in Game 2, and the series might have been much different.
Instead, you have a supremely confident Kings team that believes the Hawks are finished.
On the other hand, you have a Hawks team so entirely lacking confidence right now that the first hint of bad news sends them in a downward spiral, as you witnessed in the first period Monday night.
When you're playing with confidence, a bit of adversity is nothing you can't overcome, but when you have no confidence, you stand around watching and waiting for the next bad thing to happen.
Welcome to the Western Conference finals.
The Hawks have been outscored 15-5 since the 18-minute mark of the second period of Game 2. And it's not just that the Kings are scoring, but they're scoring in bunches and have the Hawks on their heels, seemingly unable to stem the tide.
This is an unfamiliar position for the defending champs, who usually intimidate the opposition with a scoring barrage and display of skill that frightens teams into submission.
Now on the other side of it, the Hawks are playing some miserable hockey.
The power play still stinks, but now the penalty kill has also gone to pieces after being superb the first two rounds.
They are losing puck battles, getting outworked and continue to stickhandle through traffic when they should be shooting or chipping.
Passes are in skates instead of on sticks. They're missing the net when they get the rare chance and standing around when they should be moving.
Worst of all, they're making so many mistakes in their own end that they're lucky the scores haven't been worse. The number of mental errors the last seven periods is so large that blaming any one player or any single unit would be unfair.
It has been a complete team failure as the Hawks have been reduced to thinking instead of reacting.
Consider a play with 13:02 remaining in Monday night's game, when Patrick Kane busted to the net on the right side as Jonathan Toews carried down the left. Toews eventually tapped the puck to Bryan Bickell, who had a terrific chance from the slot, but Quick made a brilliant save.
Kane hit the brakes and stood to the side of the cage as he watched Bickell's shot hit Quick's left pad and sit free in the crease. By the time Kane reacted, the puck had been cleared by Jake Muzzin. Had Kane been a step closer, it was an easy tap-in goal.
There were dozens of plays just like it Monday night, where the Hawks were just a step slow here, just a tad off there. A few inches one way or another and these last two games could have been different.
That's where the Hawks are right now. Thinking and watching, instead of playing and reacting.
A lack of confidence will do that to a team.
What they need early in Game 5 is something to feel good about, a big hit, a big save or a big bounce, something that goes their way and allows them to remember that they are the defending champs.
Then, one good period can lead to one victory, which can lead to another and maybe put some doubt in the minds of the opposition, as was the case against Detroit last year.
But no game in the postseason is easy, and the difference between winning and losing is razor thin.
It's impossible to win when you don't think you can, and though the Hawks won't say it, they are missing their traditional belief in themselves and each other.
Amazing, isn't it, how fast that can happen? But that's the NHL playoffs for you.
"It's not easy," said Duncan Keith, "but it wouldn't be worth winning the Stanley Cup without going through adversity."
Suddenly, the Hawks have all they can handle.
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