Three hundred and sixty-three days later, the Blackhawks will have their chance at redemption. A chance to re-stake their claim as the decade’s dominant franchise. A chance to move past the memories that still haunt them:the three lost leads, the puck fluttering off Nick Leddy’s jersey and past Corey Crawford in overtime, the Los Angeles Kings hopping around the United Center ice — their ice —like little kids.
“Toughest loss of our lives,” Joel Quenneville said.
Almost exactly one year later, the Hawks are back in Game 7 of the Western Conference final. The opponent is different, though the Anaheim Ducks have proven every bit as difficult, as resilient and as worthy as the Kings. The setting is different, on the road, in Anaheim at the Honda Center on Saturday night. But the goal is the same:
To get one more win. To get back to the Stanley Cup Final.
The Hawks kept their season alive Wednesday night with a 5-2 victory in Game 6 at the United Center, their never-say-die mettle again tested by the never-give-up Ducks, who turned a laugher into a nail-biter, but couldn’t quite claw all the way back. Duncan Keith sparked three second-period goals and saved another in his best performance of a brilliant postseason.
After a timid and tepid first period during which both teams seemed to feel the weight of the situation, Keith assisted on goals by Brandon Saad, Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane in a span of 3:45, and the Hawks seemed poised to coast back to Anaheim. Instead, the Ducks made a game of it. Patrick Maroon scored a power-play goal at 14:13 of the second for a sliver of hope.
The Hawks entered the game a perfect 30-0 this season and postseason when leading after two periods. The Ducks were 4-0 in the playoffs when trailing after two, and won 12 times in such fashion during the regular season, too — the league’s best comeback team. And sure enough, the Ducks have proven in this series that they have the same kind of resilience the Hawks have made their trademark — never out of it, never dead.
And after Clayton Stoner beat Corey Crawford (who was bumped by Jakob Silfverberg) at 1:57 of the third, the game turned into yet another incredibly tense, incredibly tight battle — with a stretch of 8 minutes, 13 seconds without a whistle that included Keith sweeping the puck off the goal line during a penalty kill.
Finally, Andrew Shaw scored with 3:32 left, and then he added an empty-netter to seal it.
For the Hawks, it’s about trying to maintain momentum through two off days. For the Ducks, it’s about trying to rebound from a tough loss yet again.
“It’s do or die, one team’s going home,” Anaheim’s Ryan Kesler said, hanging his hopes on home-ice advantage. “It’s why we play 82 games, so we can go home and take care of business.”
Of course, the Hawks had home-ice advantage in their last Game 7. Didn’t mean much.
Keith wasn’t on the ice when Alec Martinez scored the game-winner in overtime of that game, capping one of the best series in recent memory — one that this year’s conference final is rivaling. But he remembers what it was like to play for such high stakes, in such a tense atmosphere, with both teams on the brink of jubilation or devastation.
“Just like every game this playoff, every series, there can be momentum swings, ups and downs throughout a game,” Keith said. “Knowing they’re going to get some chances, they’re going to have some time with the puck —it’s just a matter of playing our game. Whatever adversity gets thrown our way, just fight through that and deal with it.”
That’s what both of these teams have done all series. It’s why neither team has won consecutive games yet. It’s why the Hawks could win Game 4 after giving up three goals in 37 seconds in the third period. It’s why the Ducks could win Game 5 after giving up two Jonathan Toews goals in the final two minutes. And it’s why the Hawks could win Game 6 after not winning that game, anyway.
It’s why Game 7 will require each team to find that next gear, that next level. Name the cliché, it applies here.
“As games get more and more important, I think you dig deeper and deeper,” Toews said. “That’s pretty much the most you can do. That’s all you can ask from your teammates and yourself. … As a hockey player, you want to talk about the cliché of growing up as a kid, playing on the backyard rink, pretending you’re playing that Game 7 — you think of that as the ultimate test for any player, to see what you got, to see what you can bring in a high-pressure situation like that. That’s the exciting thing.”