It’ll hurt for a while, this loss. As Jonathan Toews said earlier in the week, championship windows are hard to come by, and they don’t stay open forever. So every year without a Stanley Cup, every season that comes to an end not with hoisting a trophy but rather with a handshake and a trudge, is an opportunity lost. In its harshest, most black-and-white terms, it’s a waste.
“People forget pretty quick about the team that came up short,” Toews said. “We never want to be that team.”
But there was little shame in this one, this 5-4 overtime loss to the remarkable and resilient Los Angeles Kings. Alec Martinez’s shot deflected in off of Nick Leddy’s torso at 5:47 of overtime to end the Blackhawks’ season two weeks too early, and it surely will sting for a long time to come. But the Hawks and Kings staged one of the greatest series in recent memory, and one way or another, a great championship-caliber team was going to lose.
On this night, it was the Hawks, who came all the way back from 3-1 down to force a Game 7, only to see the Kings erase three deficits to win that Game 7. The Kings move on to face the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup Final. The Hawks are done.
“I’ve lost some tough games,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “But nothing like tonight.”
The loss brings to an end maybe the dizziest year and a half in team history, a whirlwind of success that started with a record 21-0-3 start when the lockout ended last January, and didn’t stop until the Kings skated off the United Center ice as Western Conference champions on Sunday night.
In a little more than 16 months, the Hawks played 178 games. They won a Presidents’ Trophy. They won a Stanley Cup. They held a parade. They spent the shortest summer in hockey history celebrating instead of relaxing. They played a full 82-game season. Ten of them — more than half of the 19 who played in Game 7 — flew to Russia to play even more games in the Olympics, six of them going all the way to the gold-medal game. Then another grueling run, with a draining first-round series against hard-hitting St. Louis, and a surprisingly taxing six-game battle with Minnesota. Then this Western Conference final, this unforgettable, back-and-forth, to-the-bitter-end battle with the unkillable Kings. The Hawks insisted they weren’t out of gas, but throughout the postseason, they only looked like their old selves in high-energy, dominant spurts — never for a full 60 minutes.
As a result, they couldn’t do the impossible. They couldn’t become the first team to erase a 3-1 series deficit in consecutive postseasons. They couldn’t become the first team to beat these Kings in the ultimate game (Sunday’s lineup is now a combined 83-2 in Game 7s). And they couldn’t become the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions in the salary-cap era, the first since the 1998 Red Wings.
“It’s a tough league,” Quenneville said. “It’s a tough thing to do to win the Cup.”
But they came so close.
“One shot, one goal away from going to play for the Cup,” Duncan Keith said. “It’s just really disappointing. I don’t know what else to say.”
They’ll have a longer summer now. It’ll be quieter this time, too — more time to think, to rue, to wonder what-if. They had a 2-0 lead on goals by Brandon Saad and Toews, only to see Jeff Carter and Justin Williams tie it. They had a 3-2 lead on a Patrick Sharp goal 12 seconds later, only to see Tyler Toffoli tie it. They took a 4-3 lead into the third on another Sharp goal, only to see Marian Gaborik tie it with 7:17 left.
They had their chances. Their chances to win the series, to make history, to have an opportunity to make more. But there’ll be no Cup this spring. No parade. No Grant Park rally. No summer of love. Just three months of wondering, of waiting, and, mostly, of working — so they can try to do it all over again next season.
After all, much as this one stings, that window’s still open.
“It’s tough. You never want to lose,” Toews said. “When you get the feeling, when you get the chance to win a Stanley Cup, and you win another one, you see how great it feels and how amazing it is to be a part of a group like that — that gives everything and gets the result you want. Especially when the city of Chicago rallies around you. To come up short, it’s not fun. Especially knowing what we’re missing out on.”