There will be a new Stanley Cup champion this year. After winning two straight elimination contests to force a Game 7, the Chicago Blackhawks just barely ran out of comeback magic against the Los Angeles Kings. At least that's what you'll be lead to believe over the next few days as the smoke clears from a classic Western Conference Final.
Yet the 'Hawks didn't lose the series because they ran out of voodoo. They aren't heading home earlier than last season because Justin Williams turns into Superman in Game 7 situations, nor are they unpacking golf clubs this week because of Drew Doughty's excellence.
All of these things had an impact on the series, but they didn't define Chicago's defeat. The team's inability to protect the crease and Corey Crawford is what allowed the Kings to advance, more so than any other factor.
Brian Stubits of CBSSports.com pointed this issue out following Game 4:
It's incredibly easy to blame Corey Crawford between the Chicago pipes for the high goals against. Even after a performance last postseason that was deserving of winning the Conn Smythe, the belief has persisted that Crawford is the weak link in Chicago so seeing the goals against pile up will naturally fall on his head as much as anybody else's. Indeed, he could be better, but so could the heralded defense in front of him.
They could start by actually getting in front of him.
That adjustment never came for the Blackhawks. They were better in front of Crawford in Game 7, but it was too little, too late. If you go back and watch the goals that Chicago allowed across the series as a whole, the number of 'Hawks that stood idly by as the Kings went to work in front of the net is staggering.
From the second goal that Los Angeles scored in the series on, Chicago simply got outworked in front of its own goal.
Here you see Johnny Oduya uselessly chase the puck-carrier behind the net while Patrick Sharp and Michal Handzus settled for the role of spectator. Justin Williams' Game 2 tally set the Kings on the path to victory, and that became clear as the series wore on. Even when the Blackhawks had their backs against the wall, protecting Crawford and his real estate didn't seem like a priority.
It happened again in Game 3. With L.A. trailing by a goal, Jeff Carter posted up in front of Crawford while Tanner Pearson went to work behind the net. No. 77 was allowed to receive a pass cleanly before rifling a game-tying shot despite having three Chicago players literally surrounding him.
While the examples from Games 2 and 3 are glaring, Chicago's net-clearing issue became a topic of discussion after the team allowed the Kings to score five times in Game 4. For instance, how is Crawford supposed to stop this puck when Carter is allowed to stand in front of the goal unopposed as a screen?
Here's another example from Game 4. This time it's Drew Doughty shooting through traffic, and two Kings players are allowed to stand behind Chicago's defenders and in front of Crawford. It's defensive hockey 101: You should be between the opposition's players and your goalie. The 'Hawks seemed mesmerized by the puck here, though, and went down 4-0 in the game because of it.
Kings have three goals on six shots vs. #Blackhawks. Someone might want to clear the front of the net at some point.— Chris Kuc (@ChrisKuc) May 27, 2014
Blackhawks defensemen need to do a better job clearing the crease. At this point that's the main reason they're losing.— Daniel Friedman (@DFriedmanOnNYI) May 27, 2014
Chicago stormed back in the series by winning Games 5 and 6, but it's not like they cleaned up defensively en route to those victories. Ugly goals were still all the rage for the Kings, and despite Chicago having five games to conceive a way to win more net battles, L.A. was allowed to bury shots from in close without paying any sort of physical price. If Brandon Bollig isn't on the payroll to hack, slash and punch opposing players in front of Crawford, then what is he there for in the first place?
This was Chicago's ultimate downfall. It wasn't Crawford's save percentage or not seeing the second line produce until Game 5. The Blackhawks had no willingness to protect the house, and it cost them dearly time and time again in this series.
Head coach Joel Quenneville is generally considered a strong in-game coach who is capable of making small adjustments that lead to big impacts. The creation of the Patrick Kane-Andrew Shaw-Brandon Saad line is one example. The veteran bench boss failed to inspire his team to go to war with the Kings in the blue paint, though, and that's why the Blackhawks lost the series and Game 7.
Toffoli needed some puck luck on this tying goal, but he's a forward who was left all alone in the slot in front of Crawford. That's Brent Seabrook taking a last-second swipe at Toffoli before he wires the shot into the empty net, and that lazy and unaware movement perfectly sums up why the 'Hawks fell short against Los Angeles.
At no point did it seem like they wanted to battle the Kings for turf. They continuously lost 50/50 puck battles down low and failed to react to L.A. players once they posted up in front of Crawford. Getting into shoving matches any physical battles isn't Chicago's modus operandi, but the Kings shouldn't have been allowed to build houses in front of the net on a nightly basis.
There will be a lot of analyzing and blowback for the dethroned champions. Multiple events determined the outcome of the Western Conference Final, but nothing had a more consistent impact on the result of contests than Chicago's lack of fortitude in front of its own goal.
There's no stat for that yet, but it's uncomplicated to see on tape. Apparently it's an issue that isn't easily fixed, however.
Statistics appear courtesy of NHL.com.