ANAHEIM, Calif. — Game 7s should not be this easy. If that’s not written in the hockey rulebook, then it’s certainly jotted down in the natural order.
Game 7 of a conference final is supposed to be an icy ode to desperation, featuring bloody coup attempts, close combat and general cruelty. And that’s just the first period. It’s supposed to leave everyone involved – players, coaches, fans, Zamboni drivers – looking haggard, as if they’ve been on a two-pack-a-day habit for 40 years.
Who knew the Ducks would turn out to be peaceniks, pacifists and all-around generous guys in Game 7? And who knew the Blackhawks would look as fresh as daisies?
The Hawks are heading to the Stanley Cup Final for the third time in six seasons after skating to a 5-3 victory Saturday in the Western Conference final. That’s skate, as in cruise or glide. The final score made the game look close, the way a side mirror on a car makes objects appear closer than they are. It wasn’t.
The Hawks will face the Lightning, starting Wednesday in Tampa. This feels like a snowball on a major roll.
You expect your best players to play their best in the most important games. That’s a sports given. Chicago should feel blessed that it has been given Jonathan Toews, who scored the Hawks’ first two goals, effectively saying to the Ducks, “I don’t think so.’’ Anaheim had every intention of winning this game and heading to the Stanley Cup Final. And they had every reason to believe they could. What they didn’t have was Toews, who has risen to the occasion so many times that it’s apparent he’s made of flesh and bone and helium.
“He just seems to excel in big moments, big stages,’’ Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “Shows he’s as good a leader as there is in any sport.’’
The Hawks had three goals on their first eight shots, the third score by Brandon Saad 78 seconds into the second period.
“We came out flying,’’ Toews said.
Marian Hossa scored off his skate in the second, and Brent Seabrook added a power-play goal when it got a tad interesting for the Hawks in the third. All the top players showed up. That’s how it’s done.
Corey Crawford was great in net, especially in the second period, when Anaheim outshot the Blackhawks 18-10.
The Ducks hit the Hawks all series, then they hit them some more. And long after that had lost its allure, they continued to hit them. It didn’t matter. Nobody can withstand so many hits, the Ducks’ Ryan Kesler had declared. Well, these bodies could.
“The playoffs are a battle, they’re a grind,’’ said Seabrook, a bloody cut on his chin agreeing. “You’re going to get hit. You’re going to get bumped around, slashed, whacked. You’re going to get hit by pucks. It’s fun. It’s just the best part of the year.’’
The Hawks deserve a ton of credit for withstanding all of that. They are smaller than Anaheim’s players, and their game is predicated on speed and skill. You saw what happened when it became apparent the Ducks’ attempt to beat up the Hawks wasn’t going to work. Game 7 happened.
I can’t remember seeing so many breakaways in a huge game. It’s true the Ducks outshot the Hawks 38-26 Saturday, and it’s also true the Ducks outhit the Hawks 37-15. But the Blackhawks were on Anaheim goalie Frederik Andersen likes ants on a sweet roll.
“We tried to play our best team hockey for as long as possible and try to wear them down,’’ Saad said. “The longer a series goes, I think we have an advantage.’’
The Hawks were 2,000 miles from Chicago, but they felt at home, thanks to all the fans wearing red in the arena. Hard to see how that wouldn’t be hugely disheartening for the home team. You’re one game from the Final on your own ice and you’re hearing chants of “Let’s Go Hawks”? Enough to make a hockey player cry.
The Hawks led 4-1 after two periods, meaning they are now 32-0 this season with the lead heading into the third period. But the stamp of this team has been doing things the hard way, like winning a game on the road to get to the championship round.
“It’s a team that seems to play its best when our backs are against the wall,’’ Patrick Kane said.
Winning easy isn’t a bad way to go. And it’s a lot less stressful. Just a suggestion.