As the shock of being eliminated from the NHL playoffs settled in moments after Los Angeles Kings defenseman Alec Martinez’s shot ricocheted into the Chicago Blackhawks’ net, the players on the bench hung their heads and tried to grasp the gravity of their situation.
Hawks captain Jonathan Toews slumped forward in disbelief. It looked as if he’d been kicked by one of Kings coach Darryl Sutter’s horses.
It was Sutter’s men who actually did the damage, managing with the bouncing overtime goal to come out on the winning side of yet another epic Western Conference Final contest between the league powerhouses.
The score was 5-4. The series, by a 4-3 count, belongs to the Kings.
That could still belong to the Blackhawks.
Chicago’s dynasty is on hold, but don’t be surprised to see the Hawks right back in the mix for the conference title next spring. And the spring after that. And probably the one after that, too.
You get the picture. The Blackhawks are built to last.
“The Cup champs, they don’t go away easy,” said relieved Kings forward Justin Williams to CBC’s Cassie Campbell-Pascal on the ice after the game.
The Hawks were one good shot away from advancing to the Stanley Cup Final for a second consecutive spring.
It would have been their third appearance in the championship series in five years.
"I think it's tough to repeat, but it's tough to win in the first place, eh?" --Duncan Keith.— Damien Cox (@DamoSpin) June 2, 2014
Sutter doesn’t pass praise on too easily, especially when there’s no payoff in offering it, but by many accounts—even Sutter’s via his scrum on the NHL Network—the road to the Western Conference championship still “goes right through Chicago.”
“We were pretty close to getting to the Big Dance, if you look at how close we were, how competitive it was,” said Hawks coach Joel Quenneville after the contest, as seen on the NHL Network. “It’s a tough league. It’s a tough thing to do to win the Cup. I couldn’t be prouder of our guys the way we competed. It’s a tough situation down [three games to one]. We were one shot away from going to try to do it again. We’ve lost some tough games, but nothing like tonight.”
It will take guys like Toews a while to take any consolation in that fact. For at least the next day or two, they’ll be stuck in the land of What Ifs.
What if Patrick Kane got hot a game or two earlier in the series?
What if Corey Crawford made one more save?
What if the Kings fell flat in Game 7s?
Sooner than later, though, Chicago's players will be able to reflect positively on what they accomplished this season. Eric Stephens, who covers the NHL for the Orange County Register, was one of many observers to praise Chicago's effort:
#Blackhawks shouldn't be ashamed at all. Best title defense by far since Red Wings' run to Game 7 of Final in '09.— Eric Stephens (@icemancometh) June 2, 2014
There was no Stanley Cup hangover. Although the Hawks finished what some would consider a disappointing third in the rejigged Central Division, they still managed 107 points—seventh-best in the NHL—while scoring the second-most goals in the league.
Toews is a Selke Trophy finalist who was making a case for the Conn Smythe. Duncan Keith is a Norris Trophy favorite who piled up 61 points and an incredible plus-22 rating through 79 regular-season games.
Crawford won over any remaining skeptics who suggested his play in last year’s postseason was fortunate.
Kane continued to be a clutch playoff performer, upping his overtime postseason goal count to six on his career, including the series winner against the Minnesota Wild and a big one in Game 6 of this series to force one more contest.
Within a week or two, after some margaritas on a beach or a few pints in Europe, the Hawks will be able to look forward to next year.
When they do, they’ll realize how fortunate they are to have not only those already-mentioned stars locked up for another season, but also a stellar support staff that includes Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Andrew Shaw, Brandon Saad, Ben Smith and Bryan Bickell. The entire defense, minus rarely used Sheldon Brookbank, is coming back, too.
Long-term contract negotiations with Kane and Toews will start immediately if they haven’t already. Expect those two to play nice to ensure the team remains a contender for years to come.
@NHLBlackhawks thanks guys, one heck of a series. We’ll see you next year, same place.— LA Kings (@LAKings) June 2, 2014
It might feel like they’ve been kicked by a horse, but there’s no shame in losing the way they did, to the team they lost to.
Next year, Chicago might be the ones celebrating on the ice while the Kings slump toward the floor on the bench.
Steve Macfarlane has covered the NHL for more than a decade, including seven seasons with the Calgary Sun. Follow him on Twitter @macfarlaneHKY.
All stats via NHL.com unless otherwise noted.