Not too long ago, when they were alternating Stanley Cups for four consecutive years, there was nothing quite like a Blackhawks-Kings matchup. The talent on the benches, the buzz in the crowd, the breathless play on the ice — it was as good as it gets. The 2014 Western Conference final, despite its downer ending for the Hawks, is still hailed as maybe the most exciting playoff series in recent memory.
“Amazing,” Kings coach John Stevens said. “I can remember walking out with the crowd buzzing, and especially the playoff series, and you look on the ice, and you’ve got [Anze] Kopitar and [Dustin] Brown and [Drew] Doughty and [Jonathan] Quick on one side, and then on the other side, you’ve got [Jonathan] Toews and [Patrick] Kane and [Duncan] Keith and [Brent] Seabrook and [Corey] Crawford. So it was just a lot of great players that were great competitors at key times. It was almost like a heavyweight bout where you went after each other and was shot for shot. They were great games to be a part of.”
Those memories are starting to get fuzzy, however. The Kings have won one playoff game since their 2014 Stanley Cup. The Hawks haven’t won a playoff series since their 2015 Stanley Cup. And neither team was in the playoff picture when the puck dropped Monday night.
But the Kings are at least still in the mix. And the Hawks’ lifeless effort in a 3-1 loss showed why they aren’t.
Even against an old rival, even coming off an uplifting 7-1 rout of the Capitals on Saturday, the Hawks came out with one of their worst starts, falling behind 3-0 and unable to mount a comeback against Quick and the Kings.
For a team that continues to insist it can mount a miracle run to somehow leapfrog four teams, it was a baffling and unacceptable effort.
“There’s a certain standard of starting a game, and we watched for the first 20 minutes,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “Every race, every puck battle, every play, we were behind it. They won the period in every category.”
A lack of preparation? A lack of desire? A realization that the season is lost? The Hawks had no answers for how they fell behind 3-0.
“There was not a whole lot to get excited about those first two periods,” Patrick Sharp said. “We weren’t playing with a whole lot of speed or energy or compete in our game.”
It started, as so many of the Hawks’ woes have this season, with poor puck management. The Hawks barely even crossed the red line for the first several minutes of the first period and trailed 2-0 on goals by Torrey Mitchell and Andy Andreoff. They were outshot in the first period 15-4 and fell behind 3-0 on Dion Phaneuf’s power-play goal at 4:04 of the second.
Then came another all-too-familiar scene — the Hawks roaring to life but far too late. Sharp scored 1:42 into the third period to give them some hope, but Quick shut the door from there. He made two big stops on Brandon Saad on a shorthanded two-on-one with Toews, then denied Artem Anisimov on the Hawks’ lone power play shortly after that. The Hawks had a 13-3 edge in shots on goal in the third, but it didn’t much matter with the way they started.
“The first two periods were unacceptable,” defenseman Jordan Oesterle said. “If we were able to put our finger on something, this season would be a little different.”
Instead, those halcyon days of the peak Hawks/Kings era of dominance keep fading.
“Every season has its ups and downs and different obstacles,” Sharp said. “These last couple of weeks have been maybe as hard as it gets. But nobody’s going to feel sorry for us. You’ve got to be a pro and keep fighting through it.”
Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.