Don’t kid yourself. There’s no solace in losing to the eventual champion, no retroactive relief that somehow makes scoring three goals in a four-game sweep as the conference’s top seed less embarrassing, less painful. No matter what happens in the Stanley Cup Final, the 2017 playoffs were an unmitigated disaster for the Blackhawks.
“If you’re not good enough, you’re not good enough,” Duncan Keith said last month.
“If you lose four straight, you’re nowhere near good enough. We could sit here all day thinking if it was a [different] team, maybe we would have got a better matchup and got some confidence. But at the end of the day, when you win a Stanley Cup, that’s not what you’re thinking. You’re thinking we could have played anybody and we would have gone all the way. It’s just unacceptable and nowhere near the level we need to be at.”
But Nashville’s run through the Western Conference at least validates what many hockey pundits thought all season — that the Predators were better than their seeding suggested, their inability to win during the NHL’s gimmicky regular-season overtime costing them precious standing points.
And here’s the scary part: They’re not going anywhere.
In fact, no matter what happens in the Stanley Cup Final between the Predators and Pittsburgh Penguins, it’s bad news for the Hawks.
The Predators, already built for long-term success, now know what it takes to win in the playoffs, and a championship would further neutralize what had been a sizable experience advantage for the Hawks. And from a historic standpoint, a Penguins victory could bump the Hawks from their previously unquestioned status as the gold standard of the salary-cap era.
The Penguins would have three Stanley Cups since 2009, and would have done something the Hawks were never able to do — repeat as champions and potentially become a true dynasty.
The Predators are the bigger, more tangible concern, of course, poised to take over as the Central Division and Western Conference standard-bearer for the foreseeable future.
They have their core locked up for the next few years — top center Ryan Johansen and stud winger Viktor Arvidsson are merely restricted free agents and all but certain to return — and have what the Hawks don’t: salary-cap flexibility.
While the Hawks have $21 million tied up in Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews alone, Nashville has its superb top four defensemen signed for two more seasons (three of them for three more seasons) at barely $19 million.
But the Hawks can find solace and hope in the resurgence of the Penguins.
Just a few years ago, Pittsburgh looked like a cap-strapped one-Cup wonder, destined to squander the primes of two all-time greats in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. But savvy trades for the likes of Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino and Trevor Daley (a square peg in Chicago but a nice fit in Pittsburgh) and the emergence of youngsters such as Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust have put the Penguins back on top.
And perhaps most importantly, Crosby, Malkin and Kessel have come up big in the biggest games — they were the Penguins’ top three playoff scorers last spring, and are again this spring.
The Hawks aren’t as far away from that as it might feel in the wake of the first-round sweep. It’s easy to forget they preceded the first-round faceplant with a 50-win season, the second-best mark in franchise history. Like the Penguins, the Hawks have made quality additions the past two years in Artemi Panarin and Artem Anisimov.
Like the Penguins, they have young talent in Ryan Hartman, Nick Schmaltz, and wunderkind prospect Alex DeBrincat. Age and mileage elsewhere on the roster are significant concerns, and the window won’t stay open forever. But if their biggest stars can go back to producing in the biggest games — Kane and Toews combined for three goals in the last two postseasons — there’s no reason the Hawks can’t do what the Penguins are doing now.
Well, as long as they can get by Nashville.
Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.