ANAHEIM, Calif. —Of all the clichés that have been spouted during the ramp-up to Saturday night’s Game 7 of the Western Conference final, one of them rings particularly true: Anything can happen in Game 7.
The Blackhawks have seen all three of their Game 7s go to overtime in the Joel Quenneville era —one lost after Jonathan Toews tied it on a shorthanded goal in the final two minutes; one won after an apparent series-winner was waved off for a dubious penalty call; and one lost on a fluky bounce off Nick Leddy’s jersey. And given the way this remarkable, borderline epic series has gone, it feels destined for a similarly jaw-dropping conclusion.
That said, there’s one scenario that wouldn’t surprise too many: The Ducks falling apart.
It happened last year, when the Ducks found themselves down 3-0 after one period and 5-0 late in the second to Los Angeles, which turned a 3-2 series deficit into a second-round win. It happened in 2013, when the Ducks trailed 2-1 after one and 3-1 after two to Detroit, which tuned a 3-2 series deficit into a first-round win. And it happened in Game 6 on Wednesday, when the Ducks came out flat and fell behind 3-0 in the second period to the Hawks.
The close-out game has not been kind to Anaheim in recent seasons. Each of their last two seasons has ended with a Game 7 loss on home ice. Saturday night, they’ll hope the third time’s the charm.
“Last year’s Game 7, we were just a bunch of Nervous Nellies,” said Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau. “Hopefully that happened in Game 6 [this year] and won’t carry over to Game 7.”
The Hawks are just 1-2 in Game 7 under Quenneville, but have a reputation as closers, as mentally tough and unflappable in any situation. Boudreau is 1-5 in his career in Game 7. And just like he does, his players want to shake off that choker label — whether it’s truly warranted or not —and rewrite the narrative moving forward.
“It’s happened too often the last couple years,” Ducks forward Corey Perry said. “But you win [Saturday] night, and people start talking about something different. We’re not focused on the past. We’re focused on [Saturday] night, starting something different. It’s one game to go play for the Stanley Cup”.”
The Hawks always stress strong starts, but it will take on particular importance in Game 7. They demurred when asked about the Ducks’ mental state heading into another home Game 7, but the game plan will be obvious: Put the Ducks on their heels and put that doubt back in their heads.
Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf was particularly hard on himself following Game 6, saying he played “terrible” and set the wrong tone — tentative, timid, reactive instead of proactive. The question now is, did Anaheim get those nerves out of the way in Game 6? Or will they spill into Game 7 and hand the game to the tried-and-tested Hawks?
Throughout these playoffs, the Ducks have insisted they’re a different team than the perennial disappointments they’ve been in recent years— regular-season powerhouses, postseason failures. Two dominant series wins and a resilient, high-caliber effort against the Hawks support that theory. They bounced back from a pair of multiple-overtime losses with big wins, and have yet to lose consecutive games in the postseason. And their too-little, too-late comeback in Game 6 — cutting the deficit to 3-2 at one point and putting the Hawks on their heels in the third period —at least showed they won’t simply roll over and die.
Boudreau said he hasn’t mentioned past failures, and that despite reporters’ relentless questions, that those thoughts haven’t “crept into their minds.”
But Game 7, against the two-time champion Hawks, on as big a stage as most of their roster has ever seen, with a chance at the Stanley Cup on the line, is something different. Something the Ducks have never seen before.
Anything can happen, yes. But will it? Or will it just be the same old story?
“We’ve been through the experiences now,” Getzlaf said. “We can learn from that. That’s the biggest thing. I always believed that you learn a lot from losing.”