Disappointment vs. Kings resonating for Blackhawks heading into WCF

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From the moment disaster struck, the Blackhawks tried to put the unpleasantness of their Game 7 loss to the Los Angeles Kings in last year’s Western Conference behind them.

“You have to get it out of your system,” Marian Hossa said in the aftermath of that 5-4 overtime loss at the United Center that ended the Hawks’ hopes of repeating as Stanley Cup champions.

“I’m sure it’ll take a lot of us the whole summer —maybe even [longer] —to get over it,” forward Patrick Kane said at the time. “It should make us a little more hungry next year and come back with trying to get that winning feeling back.”

That time is now — and it was worth noting that both Duncan Keith and Patrick Sharp referenced that difficult loss as a motivating factor unprompted minutes after the Hawks reached the Western Conference final Thursday night by sweeping the Minnesota Wild in the second round of the playoffs.

“We were in this position last year —so I think that alone gives us motivation knowing that we didn’t get past the next round last year,” Keith said, “So we’ve got our work cut out for us —whoever [the opponent] is —and we’re just going to try and keep on getting better.”

The Hawks advanced with a rare playoff sweep after fending off the Wild in a 4-3 victory at Xcel Energy Center. It was the Hawks’ first sweep since the conference final in 2010 against San Jose. And this one was technically more impressive —the Hawks never trailed in the series.

“This team has come together at the right time,” said Sharp, a veteran of seven playoff runs with the Hawks, including Stanley Cup championships in 2010 and 2013. “We’re playing great hockey and it was disappointing last year being so close to the finals and not being able to [advance].

“We know how hard it is to get to the conference final, so we’re going to celebrate that fact and be ready to play our best round.”

So far, the Hawks’ progression in the postseason — from good enough against the Nashville Predators to an impressive sweep of the Wild —looks like a response to the breakdowns that cost them against the Kings last year.

The Hawks lost nine leads in that fateful series (and 18 leads overall in all three rounds), including two-goal leads three times. While the 2-0 lead they lost in Game 7 was regrettable, the 2-0 lead they lost at home in Game 2 —when the Kings responded with six consecutive goals to win 6-2 — probably exposed more of the flaws of a team that seemed to be running on fumes at the end. Seemingly on their way to a 2-0 series lead, the Hawks quickly found themselves in a 3-1 hole.

“It was the worst ending,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “Certainly disappointed. But we did some good things that series fighting our way back. No matter who we play, they’re going to be excited about the challenge.”

The Hawks’ focus to right last year’s wrong is showing already. No matter what the analytics say, the eye test showed a much sharper, much more composed and resolute team against the Wild. The Hawks lost a 3-0 lead in Game 1 (and quickly recovered to win 4-3) but never lost another lead. In fact, they had the lead for 172:17 and never trailed in the entire series.

After what happened against the Kings last year, the Hawks will be on guard against those kinds of let downs against either Anaheim or Calgary in this year’s conference final. They still feel the pain.

“You learn from it,” Sharp said. “It’s disappointing. You feel like we were right there with an opportunity to go to the finals and compete for another Stanley Cup. You get over it as quickly as you can and move on. You take what you can from it. You learn and appreciate getting back because it’s quite an accomplishment. It doesn’t happen just like that. We’re fortunate to get right back this year and we’ll see what we can do.”

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