NASHVILLE, Tenn. — There’s no shame in losing. Not to a red-hot goalie, not against a burgeoning contender coming into its own, not in a league built for the kind of parity that allows a top seed to be so threatened in the first round of the playoffs.
No, what will eat at coach Joel Quenneville and the Blackhawks the most after their stunning four-game sweep at the hands of the Predators isn’t the result itself. It’s the manner in which it happened, the way the Hawks looked for the bulk of four miserable games. Lifeless. Hopeless. Goalless.
“We didn’t compete to the level that’s necessary,” Quenneville said after Thursday night’s season-ending 4-1 loss in Game 4. “I take that personally as a coach, that we didn’t find the all-out button.”
Quenneville threw everything he had at the Hawks’ myriad problems in Game 4. He put Artemi Panarin, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane together to spark some offense. He put Tanner Kero on a line with Artem Anisimov and Marian Hossa to cover Anisimov’s disastrous faceoff performance. He dressed seven defensemen to mask his aging blue line’s deficiencies. He double-shifted Kane.
None if it mattered. Not against these Predators, who suddenly looked like the preseason Stanley Cup contenders they were expected to be, while the Hawks suddenly looked like a worn-out team whose championship window is closing far sooner than expected.
Fifty wins in the regular season, three goals in the playoffs. The Hawks were as stunned as everybody else.
“Getting to this point and falling flat on our face as we did — don’t really have any words right now, or any explanation, or any good explanation, for what just happened,” Toews said. “But it’s not a good feeling, obviously.”
The Predators were everything the Hawks have been during their near-decade of dominance — fast and deep, skilled on offense and structured on defense, mentally tough and rock-solid in goal. The Hawks, meanwhile, were ragged and a step slow, with poor puck management on the ice and questionable roster management on the bench. There were flashes of the old Hawks — particularly after Roman Josi’s goal midway through the second period broke a scoreless tie — but as was the case all series, they couldn’t sustain it.
“I think it’s insulting to not give that team credit for how well they played, and how they played us specifically,” Toews said. “They were relentless.”
They were. But the first sweep of the Hawks since 1993 was a total team failure. In 13 periods, the Hawks mustered just three goals. Toews had one late window-dressing goal after scoring none in a seven-game loss to St. Louis last season. Kane had one goal for the second straight postseason. Marian Hossa and Artemi Panarin had none.
Corey Crawford was a lone bright spot, superb again as the Hawks tried to salvage some hope and some dignity. But a sustained second-period shift by Nashville in the offensive zone triggered a raucous standing ovation, and five seconds later, Josi’s blast off a Ryan Johansen faceoff win trickled between Crawford’s legs to give the Predators a 1-0 lead. It was the slimmest lead possible, but the way this series had gone, it seemed almost insurmountable.
The Predators made it 3-0 on third-period goals by Colton Sissons and Josi. Toews finally scored on a four-minute power play late in the game, but all that did was avert a third Pekka Rinne shutout. Viktor Arvidsson added an empty-netter with 1:48 left.
It was an abrupt end to a remarkable season for the Hawks. Expectations were middling as they entered the season with five or six rookies in the lineup every night. But by the end of a phenomenal February, they were the heavy favorites to come out of the Western Conference and compete for their fourth Stanley Cup in eight seasons.
Instead, the Hawks again are staring into the abyss of a nearly five-month summer, an aging roster in need of a greater infusion of speed and youth, searching for the killer instinct that was once their hallmark.
“We probably all thought it was going to go a different way, especially with the regular season [we] had,” Kane said. “Coming into the playoffs, we felt pretty confident. So yeah. I mean, disappointing. Shocked. I don’t know. It’s going to be a long summer, for sure.”
Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.