ANAHEIM, Calif. —Patrick Sharp remembers it like it was yesterday. Niklas Hjalmarsson remembers it like it was last year.
The Blackhawks’ devastating home-ice loss to the Kings in Game 7 of the Western Conference final last year resonates differently for different players. But all those who participated in it remember it. And the profound disappointment serves as motivation in some way as the Hawks prepare for Game 7 against the Anaheim Ducks on Saturday night at the Honda Center.
“I remember I was on the left side. [Alec] Martinez shot it form the other side, it got deflected and went in,” Sharp said, recalling the shot that bounced off Nick Leddy’s shoulder in front of the net and past Corey Crawford in overtime to give the Kings a 5-4 victory and a berth in the Stanley Cup Final.
“You could feel the air go out of the building. You could feel your heart drop a little bit, being that close. We had a couple leads in that game [2-0, 3-2 and 4-3]. Battling back from being down [3-1] in that series against the Kings was a tough way to go out on home ice.”
Not everybody sees it quite that way.
“I try not not to think about what happened in past years,” Hjalmarsson said. “Just have to show up and play one game for 60 minutes … [and] focus on what we have to do to win the game.”
But ever since that moment, the Hawks have been aiming to return. Now they’re here.
“You kind of learn from it,” said Sharp, who scored two goals in that Game 7 loss last year. “You use it as hunger to get back to the situation and try to learn from your past experience. Hopefully it’s a different scenario for us this time.”
“Hopefully” is the operative word heading into Game 7 on Saturday night, because regardless of the source of your motivation or the level of your desperation — no matter how badly you want it — these series-deciding hockey games often end up being coin flips. One moment you’re up 2-0 on home ice after your champion-of-champions captain scored on the power play; next thing you know the puck is going off your defenseman into the net and sending you to a summer of despair.
In the past four years, 14-of-19 Game 7s have been one-goal finals; 16 have been one-goal games going into the final three minutes of regulation; seven have been decided in overtime. The home team is 9-10 — making Game 7 statistically the easiest for the road team to win in that span.
That seemingly bodes well for the Hawks (though home teams were 3-0 in Game 7s this year heading into the Lightning-Rangers finale Friday night). But you never know in hockey. There’s also the Ducks’ motivation to consider. They’ve lost a Game 7 each of the past two seasons — both times after leading the series 3-2 — including a blowout loss to the Kings last year. They’ve got their own making up to do, and gritty veteran center Ryan Kesler to help them do it.
And for as accomplished as the Hawks have been late in playoff series in the Toews-Kane era — they’re 13-4 in Game 5s and 13-1 in Game 6s —they’re only 1-2 in Game 7s. So even for a team that wins more than its share of coin flips, this is treacherous territory.
“If you look at our history, we’ve always been pretty good with our backs up against the wall,” said Patrick Kane, who will start on the top line with Toews and Brandon Saad in Game 7 — just as he finished Game 6. “We have a lot of guys that step up in those situations, whether it’s myself Dunks [Duncan Keith], Johnny [Toews]. Obviously Richie [Brad Richards] has a great record [7-0] in closeout situations.
“I think we kind of look at one another in the room and know that we got the right group together —know that we got a great opportunity here.”
So regardless of the impact of last year’s loss to the Kings, Saturday night’s game is all it needs to be — Game 7.
“It was a tough feeling obviously when you see the puck go in the net,” Keith said. “But we’re not thinking about that. We’re not worried about that. We’re worried about [Saturday] night’s game. We’re looking forward to it. It’s one of the greatest things in sports, is a Game 7, for an opportunity to go to the Stanley Cup Final.
“We’re excited. We had good energy today in practice. We’ve been feeling good since we got to Anaheim. We’re looking forward to getting out there and playing. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”