By Mark Lamport-Stokes
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, with Patrick Kane back to his best, staved off playoff elimination for a second straight game by beating the Los Angeles Kings 4-3 at Staples Center on Friday.
Two goals in the second period, followed by two more late in the third, made the difference in a Game Six of electrifying pace, dramatic lead changes and high energy as Chicago tied the best-of-seven Western Conference finals series at 3-3.
Trailing 0-1 after the first period, the Blackhawks scored twice in quick succession in the second through right wings Kane and Ben Smith, then rallied from 2-3 down in the third as defenseman Duncan Keith and Kane, again, struck with wrist shot.
"This team just sticks to it, it's an unbelievable group of guys," the enigmatic Kane, who had just a single point after the first four games of the series before regaining his customary form, told NBC television.
"For some reason when the chips are down, it seems like we've got a lot of guys that step up. Huge team effort tonight."
Kane, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner last season as the most valuable player of the Stanley Cup playoffs, was delighted by his team's efforts in coming back from a 2-3 deficit with less than nine minutes remaining in the third period.
"It was disappointing, especially when we feel we could have prevented that second goal and then you take the penalty to make it 3-2," he said.
"I was out on the ice for two of the goals before that and felt I had to do something to get it back. Luckily I was able to do that."
Kings captain Dustin Brown was bitterly disappointed after his team surrendered two late goals, goaltender Jonathan Quick ending the night with 21 saves on 25 shots in a match-up between the past two Stanley Cup champions. "I don't think we can expect to give up four goals in one game," said forward Brown. "It's been our problem the last two games, giving up too many goals.
"That's the result of making mistakes in the neutral zone and mistakes on coverage. If we clean that up, we're good."
Watched by a sellout crowd of 18,500, the game began at a lightning-fast pace with the Blackhawks initially posing more of an offensive threat but it was the Kings who opened the scoring with just under three minutes left in the first period.
Left wing Dwight King, on an assist from Jarret Stoll who retrieved a loose puck from the corner, rifled a shot past Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford to put the Kings ahead 1-0.
Chicago, who beat Los Angeles 5-4 in double overtime on Wednesday to fend off playoff elimination, then responded with a flurry of two goals within two minutes in the second period.
Kane scored with a wrist shot at 1.12 before Smith followed up 97 seconds later after banking the puck into the net off the back of goaltender Quick's foot.
The atmosphere became electric in the third when the Kings tied the score at 2-2 with a wrist shot by defenseman Drew Doughty at 5.32 before the home fans erupted in delight after Alec Martinez struck at 7.38 on a power play to make it 3-2.
Once again, though, Chicago responded. Keith, superbly set up by Kane, scored at 11.34 to even things up at 3-3 before Kane struck with his eighth goal of the postseason, a wrist shot with just 3.45 left to put the Blackhawks ahead for good.
The series shifts back to Chicago for a decisive Game Seven on Sunday and the eventual winners will advance to meet the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup Finals.
"It's one game, do-or-die, to go to the Stanley Cup final," said Kane, who was a pivotal figure for the Blackhawks last year when they beat the Kings in five games at the same stage of the playoffs. "If you were offered this at the start of the season, you'd take it 100 percent of the time." Kings defenseman Doughty simply hopes his team can benefit from what they learned in their Game Six defeat as they head to Chicago for the series decider.
"We have a one-game playoff in their building to punch a ticket to the finals," he said. "We have got to focus and learn from our mistakes tonight and go in there ready to play."
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Nick Mulvenney)