ANAHEIM, Calif. — They were too old, and the window was closing too fast. They were too short on defensemen, too streaky, too worn down by too many games. They coasted for maddening stretches of the regular season, and they never seemed angry enough about it. They were wracked by imagined internal turmoil, their trade-deadline moves were disasters, their preseason moves were even worse.
Hell, three weeks before the end of the season, they were a wild-card team whose leading scorer was out indefinitely with a broken clavicle, in danger of tumbling out of the playoff picture all together. They were done. Finished. Staring into the abyss of a cap-mandated offseason dismantling. Ask anybody.
Of course, these Blackhawks have a habit of making conventional wisdom look foolish. Ask the Detroit Red Wings. Ask the Boston Bruins. Ask the St. Louis Blues.
And ask the Anaheim Ducks, who could only watch as Jonathan Toews and the Hawks celebrated an all-too-easy 5-3 victory in Game 7 of the Western Conference final on Saturday night, earning their third trip to the Stanley Cup Final in six seasons. They’ll face the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 1 at Amalie Arena on Wednesday, in search of a third Stanley Cup and true hockey immortality.
Immortality’s a fitting term for the Hawks, given that they’ve proven all but unkillable, rallying from a 3-2 deficit against Anaheim to further burnish their reputations as the ultimate comeback kids, the ultimate closers. After all, it was Anaheim’s Ryan Kesler who insisted — perhaps desperately — that “no human” could withstand the punishment the Ducks were doling out during the series. Superhuman? Nah. Hockey zombies, these Hawks. Relentless. Remorseless. Ruthless.
“We always do a great job of looking at the big picture and realizing the potential of our team,” Toews said. “We don’t need to go on a long stretch of wins and win the Presidents’ Trophy and have the regular season of our lives to have the confidence that we can go the distance in the playoffs. We know we’ve just got to get there.”
It was Toews, having scored two first-period goals to deflate and defeat the top-seeded Ducks, leaping into his teammates’ arms while Ryan Getzlaf, mired in his second straight poor performance with a Final berth on the line, trudged away. It was the indefatigable Duncan Keith double-shifting in the third and gleefully gliding down the ice in celebration while Kesler stared at the Honda Center roof in despair. It was the Hawks finding redemption after blowing three separate leads in an overtime Game 7 loss to the Los Angeles Kings last spring, while the Ducks lamented a third straight season ending with a lopsided Game 7 loss on home ice.
Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau said his team was a bunch of “nervous Nellies” in that game last year. They were no better in Game 6 or 7 this year against the Hawks, their bravado and their strength yielding to yips and gaffes. While Toews, the unflappable 2010 Conn Smythe winner, potted two quick goals to suck the life out of the Ducks and their fans, Getzlaf committed turnovers, Perry missed wide, and Patrick Maroon couldn’t finish three golden chances.
“It speaks volumes about the character in this room, and the leadership, starting with the captain,” Patrick Kane said. “You get two goals [from him] right away. It’s pretty remarkable how he shows up in these games, and seems to come through time after time.”
Meanwhile, Frederik Andersen looked nothing like the cool, dominant goalie from early in the series. By the time Brandon Saad scored off a beautiful Patrick Kane pump-fake and Marian Hossa followed a Brad Richards attempt to make it 4-0, Andersen had yielded 13 goals on the last 60 shots he had faced — dating back to the two Toews scored in the final two minutes of Game 5.
The Hawks never blinked. A sweet shot from Kesler late in the second briefly injected some life into the crowd, and Perry scored with 8:24 left to make it interesting. But Hossa killed the push with a steal and a drawn penalty, and Brent Seabrook sealed it with a power-play goal, as blindsided Ducks fans were mostly drowned out by the sizable Hawks contingent, who chanted and cheered and danced in the aisles throughout the anticlimactic conclusion to an otherwise unforgettable series.
“I can’t put a timetable on it,” Kesler said when asked when he’d get over this one. “Probably never.”
And so it’s onward for the Hawks, who have now won nine playoff series in three years, the gold standard for the salary-cap era — a middling and meaningless regular season behind them, another shot at yet another championship ahead.
“We haven’t done anything yet,” Kane said. “But it’s a great step.”