CHICAGO -- So much ground covered, so much emotion expended, so little decided.
The last two Stanley Cup champions have gone hammer and tong through six games, and the only thing resolved is that fans have been treated to a veritable feast of hockey at the highest level.
The only good thing about the teams having to pack up and fly east to Chicago for Sunday's deciding game is that it gives fans -- and, heck, even the media -- a chance to exhale.
The heavyweight boxing analogy gets thrown around in playoff series quite often. But in this case, it fits. The Hawks opened the series with a win, then lost three in a row before shocking the Kings with two dramatic come-from-behind wins in Games 5 and 6. And the punch-counterpunch nature of this series has truly been revealed in almost every game as a testament to both teams' incredible resiliency and depth.
Both teams have scored first and lost, the Hawks managing it twice in Games 2 and 3. The Kings have blown third-period leads in the past two games. The power play has waxed and waned. There have been goaltending highlights and lowlights, turnovers and long periods of breathtaking up-and-down action.
"You can feel it's high-level hockey that's playing, that's for sure. They're bringing it every game, they're a machine-like team. They bring the same effort every single game," Chicago defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said after the Blackhawks returned to Chicago late Saturday afternoon.
"We just have to try to match that, and I really think this series deserved a Game 7, and I think the crowd deserved it, too. And I think it's going to be a great finish to a great series. And hopefully we'll be the winner out of this one, but it's been some really good hockey that's been playing in these games, definitely."
If you're looking for patterns that might help decipher who will emerge to play the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup finals starting Wednesday, they will be difficult to unearth -- although it is pretty compelling that the Blackhawks are now 13-0 in Games 5, 6 and 7 the past two springs.
On the other hand, the Kings are an impressive 6-0 when facing elimination this spring, and they outscored San Jose and Anaheim 11-3 in their two previous Game 7s. So something's got to give, no?
But to help sort through what might unfold Sunday, here are eight players who could impact the outcome of what has evolved into a classic playoff clash between two NHL powers.
Patrick Sharp, Chicago Blackhawks
It has not been a particularly memorable series for the Canadian Olympian who was a key contributor to the Hawks' Cup wins in 2010 and 2013. Sharp entered Game 6 with one goal in the series, and that one was scored as time was running out in a Game 4 loss with the outcome already decided. But on Friday he had his best game of the series and one of his best in the postseason. He matched teammate Patrick Kane with a game-high five shots and earned the primary assist on Ben Smith's goal early in the second period that gave the Blackhawks a 2-1 lead. If Sharp -- who had been demoted to the team's third line -- can bring that level of play to Game 7, it will allow head coach Joel Quenneville to double-shift Kane at times with Sharp.
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks
One of the best lines after Game 6 came from Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty when asked about trying to contain Kane, who had just lit up the Kings for two goals and an assist and had seven points in the last two games. "You know what? Last game, yeah, he got four assists, but I didn't even think it was like he dominated the game. The stat sheet tells a different story than the actual game," Doughty said, prompting arched eyebrows from the reporters surrounding him.
Well, what about in Game 6 when he set up the tying goal in the third and then made a marvelous play to find time and space in which to send the winner to the net through a crowd?
"I guess not on that goal. I guess the other goal, too, where he passed it to the D-man [ Duncan Keith] so, yeah, we didn't do a good enough job on him tonight," Doughty acknowledged.
OK, that's better. To put it succinctly, Kane is simply in a zone that only a handful of players get to. After four forgettable games to start the series, Kane has become unstoppable playing alongside new linemates Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw. They forced turnover after turnover in the Kings' zone and constantly found excellent shooting lanes. Given Kane's penchant for producing big things in big games, no reason to expect Sunday will be any different.
Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings
Speaking of Doughty, here's another guy who's bringing the heat. He has been banging Blackhawks all series and, when he's not dumping them on their butts, he's been making life miserable for Chicago netminder Corey Crawford. For a time in the third period of Game 6, it looked as though Doughty would single-handedly send the Kings back to the finals with a goal and an assist in a 2:06 span that gave the Kings a 3-2 lead. Doughty has seven points in the series and led all skaters with 26:10 in ice time in Game 6, two days after logging 39:04 in the Kings' double-overtime loss in Game 5. He's a horse, and it will be a major shock if he isn't in the 30-minute range in Game 7 (unless it goes to overtime, which is a distinct possibility). Could fatigue be a factor? Hard to imagine, given the engine that drives Doughty.
Jeff Carter (And That 70s Line), Los Angeles Kings
Game 6 marked the first time in seven games Carter did not record at least a point. He still leads all players in the conference finals with 10 points, but he and his youthful linemates Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson have gone from being game-changers, as they were when the Kings won three straight in the middle of the series, to something less than that. Whether it's the Blackhawks' defensive adjustments or simply the ebb and flow of the series, the Kings are going to need the old version of the Carter-Toffoli-Pearson unit if they're going to win their third straight Game 7 on the road this spring. Toffoli and Pearson have been terrific this spring and, in particular, in this series where they have combined for five goals and six assists. But they have been less noticeable in Games 5 and 6, and you wonder if there are some young player nerves at play here. If so, they'd better put them away Sunday.
Justin Williams, Los Angeles Kings
It's not like Mr. Game 7 sits around waiting for deciding games to show up. With an assist on the Kings' first goal in Game 6, Williams now has 16 points in his last 17 postseason games and five points in his last five games against the Blackhawks. But if there is one single Kings player who has a knack for finding the way in a Game 7, it would be Williams, who has collected an astounding 12 points (six goals, six assists) in six Game 7s in his career. He has never lost a deciding game, going 6-0. And if you throw in Marian Gaborik and Mike Richards, the three Kings forwards are a combined 18-0 in Game 7s. Already this spring Williams has added an assist in Game 7 against San Jose and then was a key factor in the Kings' blowout win over Anaheim in Game 7 with a goal and an assist. No reason to suggest Sunday will be any different.
Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings
It's been a weird playoff year for the former playoff MVP. He was out of sorts, as were all of the Kings, in falling behind San Jose 3-0, but he has been very good since. But in the past two games, Quick's allowed nine goals and, while he's made some spectacular stops like breaking up a 2-on-0 in Game 6, somehow denying Sharp with a great arm save, there have been moments when Quick has looked unsettled. Still, if there's a better money goaltender over the past three playoff years, we don't know who it would be. And the Kings are going to need Quick to be better than he has the past two games.
Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks
Crawford has been the yo-yo man in this series, his play running the gamut from exemplary to ordinary to, well, subordinary. But for the second straight game, Crawford delivered tough saves when his team absolutely needed him. He admitted he didn't like the Kings' third goal by Alec Martinez, which beat him 5-hole from the slot, but there's a little of the Grant Fuhr going on with Crawford in the last couple of games. He's not pitching shutouts, but the Blackhawks are a talented enough team -- a la the Edmonton Oilers -- that they don't necessarily need that. What they do need is timely saves, and in two straight elimination games, Crawford has provided that. He did the same thing a year ago against Boston when the Blackhawks had to scramble after falling behind 2-1 in the series.
Brandon Saad, Chicago Blackhawks
Sometimes Chicago head coach Joel Quenneville doesn't get enough credit for making adjustments. After his team fell behind 3-1 in this series, he's been pushing buttons like mad. When he sent Kane out with Saad and Shaw in Game 5, he caught that proverbial lightning in a bottle. More than just instant chemistry, Saad has embraced the moment in a way that suggests his importance to this team will be shown for many years to come. Speedy, skilled, defensively responsible, Saad was a candidate for the U.S. Olympic team right down to the wire and, while he has seen some ups and downs this spring, he is delivering at just the right time with two goals and three assists in the last three games, including a helper on Kane's game-winner in Game 6.