There was no way this was going to be easy. The Blackhawks and Kings had been at each other’s throats for the better part of two weeks, so to think that Game 7 of the Western Conference final would go quietly was foolishness.
They scraped and clawed, and then they scraped and clawed some more. In the end, when all the sweat had been expended, the Kings were left standing, or wobbling, after a 5-4 overtime victory Sunday night.
There was no shame in losing this thrilling, exhausting series. These were probably the two best teams left playing in the NHL.
The Hawks blew leads of 2-0, 3-2 and 4-3. They did not do “easy’’ in these playoffs, and it came back to haunt them. No matter how talented you are, you can’t keep offering your neck to your opponent for squishing. It’s what the Hawks did over and over again, both in this game and in this series.
Alec Martinez’s shot deflected off Hawks defenseman Nick Leddy before fluttering past goalie Corey Crawford. To quote Patrick Kane from last season’s championship rally in Grant Park, “That’s hockey, baby.’’ You think you have everything in place for a title run, and then a puck bouncing around like a pinball relieves you of your dreams.
“We never say die,’’ Martinez said. “Somebody described us as a bunch of cockroaches that don’t go away.’’
The Hawks did. All the talk about a dynasty will have to pick up next season. The defending Stanley Cup champions were hoping for two in a row and three in five years. Now they’ll have to watch the Kings play the Rangers from their couches.
“We were pretty close to getting to the big dance,’’ coach Joel Quenneville said. “You look at how close we were, how competitive it was. It’s a tough league. It’s a tough thing to do, to win the Cup.’’
It was a ridiculously entertaining series, with 51 goals over seven games and enough lead changes and momentum swings to cause motion sickness.
Down three games to one, on the edge of elimination, the Hawks crawled back to make this a series. How close were they to an early postseason vacation? About the width of a puck. In overtime of Game 5, Anze Kopitar’s shot clinked off the left post, and the Hawks and Crawford lived for another day.
This team is loaded with talent, and all that talent is the engine that has driven the success of the last five years. But there’s also a resolve that’s impossible to ignore. You don’t do what they did in this series without sticking your chin out in defiance.
But they have nothing on Los Angeles when it comes to resiliency. The Kings’ victory was their third Game 7 road victory in three 2014 playoff series. To come into the United Center and beat the defending champs? Tip your hockey helmet, if you’re wearing one.
The Hawks’ defense struggled in front of Crawford too often in this series, and it did so again. No one picked up Kings star Marian Gaborik when he was able to backhand in his own rebound to tie the score 4-4 in the third period. How do you miss him?
Patrick Sharp, who suddenly reappeared with two goals, was down for the longest time in these playoffs. He was so down that, after awhile, reporters didn’t even bother asking him what was wrong. There’s no sense in asking a cadaver to open wide and say “ah.” Sharp broke out of his slump with a puck that bounced in front of Quick and then past him for a first-period goal and a 3-2 Hawks lead. But they needed more from him than they got in this series.
The Hawks had jumped to a 2-0 first-period lead on goals by Brandon Saad and Jonathan Toews. The United Center was rocking. What could go wrong?
But the Kings don’t go away. You know this by now. These are the guys who are told to leave the party but refuse. Go ahead and call the cops, they say.
The Hawks didn’t quite know how to make them leave.
“You don’t get this far, to Game 7, one shot, one goal away from going to play for the Cup — it’s just really disappointing,’’ defenseman Duncan Keith said. “I don’t know what else to say.’’
There was nothing else to say. This team is built for one thing: Stanley Cups. As competitive as this series was and as talented as the Kings are, this stings for the Hawks. That sting will last a long, long time.