The Chicago Blackhawks were one bad bounce away from getting to the Stanley Cup Final for the second year in a row and having an excellent chance to win their second consecutive title and third in five years.
If Alec Martinez's wrist shot from near the blue line had not deflected off the body of Nick Leddy and past goalie Corey Crawford, the Blackhawks may well have been the winner of their epic Game 7 matchup with the Los Angeles Kings.
But it was not merely a bad break that caused the explosive Blackhawks to fall short of playing for the glorious trophy that is the Stanley Cup. The Kings were every bit as good as the Blackhawks, and they certainly proved to be the stronger and more powerful team.
The Blackhawks have long used puck possession as the answer to physical play, but that did not work out against the Kings.
There were telltale signs throughout the season that the Blackhawks would not be the team left standing at the end of the playoffs. Problems popped up at various points throughout the season.
Perhaps the most troubling of those was a defense that proved somewhat leaky. The Chicago defense was not as good as it had been the previous year when the team steamrolled through the lockout-shortened season and had a sensational playoff run to win the Stanley Cup.
They were not as good as they had been in that area during the 2009-10 season. That's the year that the Blackhawks ended their 49-year drought and picked up their first Stanley Cup since Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita were the team's biggest names in the spring of 1961.
Here's a look at the defensive drop-off suffered by Joel Quenneville's team:
Chicago was the 12th-ranked defensive team in the league, as the Blackhawks gave up 2.58 goals per game in the regular season. Compare that to the top-ranked Kings and the second-ranked Boston Bruins, who gave up 2.05 and 2.08 goals per game, respectively.
The Rangers, who are fighting with the Kings for the Stanley Cup, were the fourth-ranked defensive team in the league as they allowed 2.32 goals per game during the regular season.
A year ago, the Blackhawks were the best defensive team in the league. They gave up 2.02 goals per game, and that defensive performance was a big reason why the Blackhawks started the season by playing 24 consecutive games without a regulation loss. They finished what they started by beating the Bruins in six games in the Stanley Cup Final.
When the Kings won the Stanley Cup following the 2011-12 season, they were the second-best defensive team in the league behind the St. Louis Blues. The Bruins earned the 2011 Stanley Cup, and they also ranked as the second-best defensive team in the league that year.
When the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010, the Blackhawks were tied for fifth in goals against, giving up 2.48 goals per game.
It's clear that defensive superiority is a key factor for winning the Stanley Cup, and the Blackhawks were only slightly better than average in 2013-14.
Can they return to form next year?
They have an outstanding shutdown pair of defensemen in Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson. Quenneville is not afraid to put that pair out against any top forward line the Blackhawks face.
However, their top pair of Duncan Keith (48.1 Corsi rating) and Brent Seabrook (47.1 Corsi) may be better as an offensive tandem than when they are asked to play defense. Those numbers rank 31st and 35th, respectively, in these playoffs.
Seabrook had a number of mishaps during the regular season and the Stanley Cup playoffs, and none of his errors may have been more telling than the power-play goal scored by Dustin Brown in Game 4 of the Western Conference Final.
In that game, the Blackhawks were already trailing 2-0 in the latter stages of the first period when the Kings went to the man advantage. Brown stationed himself in front of Crawford, and Seabrook did nothing to move him out of the way. Brown had time and space when he got the puck, and he had no trouble putting the puck by Crawford in a crucial situation.
The Blackhawks also depend on Leddy and Michal Rozsival as their third pair most nights. Consistency is not their strong suit. Leddy is a strong skater capable of making big plays, but he has a tendency to make mistakes. Rozsival is smart and experienced, but his speed is not his greatest asset.
The Blackhawks don't have to make any major changes on the back end, but general manager Stan Bowman may want to bring in one or two defensemen who can force the issue and possibly compete for a third-pair spot.
Additionally, they need better play on the defensive side from Keith and Seabrook if they want to have another dominant year and compete for the Stanley Cup once again.
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