LOS ANGELES -- And so the dream of back-to-back Stanley Cups recedes to a tiny pinpoint of light in an otherwise dark room for the Chicago Blackhawks.
There's a reason, maybe a thousand reasons, that essentially no NHL team repeats as champion. No one.
How many reasons were on display Monday night in Los Angeles, where the Blackhawks were crushed like an old soda can on the side of the road by a relentless Kings team that poured three goals past the defending champions in the last half of the first period en route to a 5-2 victory in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals?
Game 5 is set for Wednesday night in Chicago, where the Blackhawks, now trailing 3-1 in the series, will face their first elimination game of the spring.
Unless they can find some sort of wellspring of will, of determination, of discipline that eluded them in what was for all intents and purposes a must-win situation in Game 4, then it will be a formality and the dream of a first repeat champion since 1997-98 in Detroit will evaporate like all of the others in between.
"I think when you give up three goals in a period, especially the first period, to a team like that, it gives them energy, gives them confidence, in their own building. So we know we can't do that," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said afterward. "It's frustrating to think about the little things we could have changed to put ourselves in a better situation in the series, but we're not going to stop working, we're not going to stop trying. It's as simple as that."
This isn't to say the Blackhawks have no chance. Of course they do. A year ago, they erased a 3-1 series deficit against the Red Wings in the second round. But if the moments of separation between the Kings and Blackhawks that had revealed themselves late in Kings victories in Games 2 and 3 suggested a trend, then Game 4 marked something more emphatic, the space between the two teams appearing for most of the night to be vast, chasm-like and, dare we say, unbridgeable.
No back and forth, no ebb and flow as had been the case earlier in the series. This was all back no forth, all ebb no flow from the Blackhawks' perspective until the third period, when they played their most desperate hockey of the night but could get no closer than 4-2 before the Kings added an empty-net goal to close out the scoring.
Since winning Game 1 by a 3-1 count, the Blackhawks have been outscored 15-7 during their current three-game slide.
"Yeah, it's not a good position to be in," offered winger Patrick Kane, who earned an assist -- his first point of the series -- on the team's second goal, a third-period marker by Bryan Bickell. "I think coming into this series you'd be lying if we thought we'd be in this position, but it happens and we've got no one to blame but ourselves. We're the only ones that are going to get ourselves out of it, so might as well start with Game 5 in Chicago."
All the things the Blackhawks had insisted they were going to do better, cracks in their armor they were going to buttress, evaporated like so much smoke in a span of 6:04 in the first period that saw the Blackhawks allow three goals on six shots -- two on the power play -- effectively sucking the life out of the defending champs and turning this series on its ear.
The goals were the result of mental breakdowns and miscues that seemed to multiply exponentially. A Marian Hossa goaltender interference penalty cut short a Chicago power play and then led to a Kings power play, during which the Blackhawks could not clear the zone, allowing Jeff Carter to block Corey Crawford 's view on the first goal by Jake Muzzin .
That was followed by a ghastly turnover by Duncan Keith that allowed Anze Kopitar to find Marian Gaborik alone in front because Brent Seabrook was too slow to get back into position after Gaborik had nailed him to the end boards.
Another power-play goal followed that came after an unnecessary offensive-zone roughing penalty to Patrick Sharp and again featured Kings players in behind the Blackhawks defenders, with Dustin Brown scoring his first of the series after Justin Williams redirected a pass to the uncovered Brown.
"Yeah, it's not obviously the way we drew it up," Keith said. "But we can draw on experience [from] before and knowing that there's always going to be adversity here along the way and just a matter of finding a way here and taking it one game at a time."
And give the Blackhawks credit. In the face of a crushing loss, their big-name players were all front and center answering questions.
"Obviously, it's frustrating right now, at the moment," Keith said. "We've got to take these next couple of days to regroup again and just find a way. Be excited about going back home into Chicago in our building. Really, that's all we have to do is win one hockey game. That's all our focus is on just winning one hockey game. We were in the same position last year against Detroit and found a way, so it's up to us to dig down deep and find a way and, like I say, just focus on one game now."
Twice this spring, the Kings have lost three in a row. The first time was when they went down 3-0 to San Jose and then roared back for four straight wins. They then lost three in a row to Anaheim after taking a 2-0 series lead in the second round. But this is a Kings team that embodies the playoff mantra of arcing toward greatness as the playoffs move along.
And, watching them win three in a row against a very good Chicago team, it's hard to imagine any circumstance that might see another three-game slide happen again.
Kings defenseman Muzzin, who blasted home the first goal of the game and is now tied for the playoff lead among defensemen with five goals, insisted there is no surprise about where the Kings are at in this series.
"Yup, we know what we have in here and we know what we're capable of," Muzzin said. "We believe in our guys and when we play good hockey, it's good enough."
By comparison, watching this Blackhawks team, humbled as they were Monday, reconfirms just how daunting the task of repeating as champions is.
The Kings followed this disappointing script a year ago, when they were the defending champs coming off their virtuoso run to the 2012 championship. Banged up and running on fumes, the Kings kept it close but were dispatched by Chicago in five games.
This spring, the Blackhawks have struggled to find consistence from the get-go. Yes, they won six in a row to close out St. Louis in the first round and then opened up a two-game lead against Minnesota. But they were only OK against the Wild while being forced to six games.
Against L.A. those inconsistencies, the inability to string together three periods of championship-level hockey, have been mercilessly exploited by the Kings. The Blackhawk penalty kill, a strength all spring, has now allowed five power-play goals on 10 chances in the past three games.
Meanwhile, the talented Blackhawks were once again impotent with the man advantage, going 0-for-3 in Game 4; Chicago is now 1-for-11 in the past three games and 1-for-24 on the road with the man advantage.
Everything head coach Joel Quenneville attempted in an effort to prod some life into his flagging troops failed, including tinkering with the power-play lineup. Kane moved to the team's top line with Toews and Bickell, but the line was not particularly effective, especially through the first 40 minutes.
At one point in the second period, with the score 3-0, the Blackhawks found themselves on a 3-on-2 and Kane with the puck. But instead of making a play or getting away a shot, his effort was blocked.
Shortly afterward Brandon Saad, who scored the first Chicago goal after the Kings had built a 4-0 lead, had a chance to score but couldn't find the back of the net, and then Andrew Shaw took an offensive-zone crosschecking penalty.
Sharp continued to struggle while playing mostly with Marcus Kruger and Hossa; he sailed a power-play chance high and wide from the side of the net in the second period when a goal might have helped rejuvenate the team.
And so it goes.
Go back in history and it's exactly what happens to almost all defending champions along the way. There comes a moment when they simply cannot find the effort, the karma, the bounces that all champions need. It's like there's a finite number of those elements and when they're gone, they're gone.
It would appear the Chicago Blackhawks are confronting such a moment now.