A crazy, unpredictable series is headed for its logical conclusion, whatever that is.
The Blackhawks and the Ducks will meet Saturday in Game 7 of the Western Conference final, raising the question that has been uttered over and over again for the better part of two weeks.
Who really knows how this series will be settled? The answer is the same as it was before Game 1: No one, that’s who.
“When you get to this point, everybody says (that in) Game 7 anything can happen,’’ Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. “I think that’s what we truly believe.’’
The Hawks beat the Ducks 5-2 Wednesday night at the United Center, forcing a deciding game in Anaheim and leaving both teams achingly close to the Stanley Cup Final. It’s right there in front of them, about a million miles away.
“It’s like anything else,’’ Hawks defenseman Duncan Keith said. “It’s one game, and it’s just a matter of going out there and executing in the one game.’’
Keith was phenomenal Wednesday night, picking up three assists, saving a goal and leading all players with 28 minutes, 35 seconds of ice time. There were lots of other big performances, but let’s throw some praise at coach Joel Quenneville. He had Toews and Patrick Kane on the same line most of the night, and the result was a lot of offense. Hmmm. Might want to try that more often.
In hockey, you don’t often see what Kane did to Matt Beleskey in the second period. Basketball, yes. Hockey, no. It’s called a crossover. The only things separating Beleskey from two broken ankles are two tightly laced skates and perhaps a higher power.
When Kane got the puck on his stick, the UC was still roaring over goals by Brandon Saad and Marian Hossa. But those decibel levels felt like church music after Kane wiggled, head faked and stickhandled past Beleskey and toward Ducks goalie Frederik Andersen, who would not have been blamed for wondering if he owed money for the price of a ticket.
Kane’s wrist shot gave the Blackhawks a 3-0 lead, which, as anyone who had watched Game 5 knew, meant somewhere between “absolutely nothing’’ and “not much.’’ The Ducks had taken a 3-0 first-period Monday and ended up needing overtime to win 5-4.
And sure enough, the Hawks’ 3-0 second-period lead Wednesday seemed to have the strength of onionskin. Anaheim came back in a hurry, scoring on Patrick Maroon’s power-play goal later in the second and Clayton Stoner’s goal less than two minutes into the third. So it was 3-2, and, well, what did anybody really expect in this series? There had been six overtime-periods in the first five games, including a triple-OT marathon in Game 2 and a double-OT nail-biter in Game 4.
But Andrew Shaw scored two goals, the second an empty-netter, to send the series to its limit. Never in doubt? It’s always in doubt in this series.
The Hawks are playing in their fifth conference final in the past seven seasons. They are made for these moments. But it doesn’t ensure success. A year ago, they lost in Game 7 of the conference final to the Kings, the eventual Stanley Cup champion.
“It’s something to reflect back on – the feeling after we lost that game, how we felt inside of our locker room,’’ Kane said. “We definitely don’t want that feeling again.’’
They’ll have to overcome the Ducks, who have been every bit as difficult to move as the Kings were.
What a remarkable series this has been. Criticize the Hawks’ Bryan Bickell for not clearing the puck in overtime of a Game 5 loss if it helps you deal with your feelings of helplessness and rage. Call out Kane for not having a great series if you’re looking for a needle to blame in a haystack of thrilling hockey.
But you’re missing the point. You’re missing the beauty and brutality, the wonder and worry of a remarkable battle between – duck, here comes a sports cliché! – two evenly matched teams.
Here’s how Quenneville described it Wednesday morning in his typical machine-gun, just-the-facts-ma’am fashion:
“Very competitive. Extremely unpredictable. Extremely fast, hard. A lot of twists, a lot of turns. Pretty amazing series. Pretty amazing pace. A lot of hockey. A lot of hockey left.’’
He proved to be prescient. There is a lot of hockey left. I don’t know how much more of it you can take, but there’s a lot of hockey left.