The Chicago Blackhawks came into Game 7 of the Western Conference Final on Saturday never having lost a series in the Joel Quenneville era after it had been tied 2-2, with a combined record in Games 5 and 6 of 15-1. The Anaheim Ducks came into Game 7 with the memory of losing a seventh game in blowout fashion at home last season to the Los Angeles Kings in a Western Conference Semifinal.
Experience, the "been there, done that" factor, won the night. The Blackhawks are going to the Stanley Cup Final for the third time in the last six seasons after their 5-3 win Saturday night at the Honda Center. The Anaheim Ducks have all summer to wonder how their season ended for the second year in a row with a loss at home in a Game 7 after having a 3-2 series lead.
Not only did the better team win Saturday night, the more heavily cheered team in the building won. It sounded like a home game for the Blackhawks, despite the contest being played in Anaheim.
Maybe that wasn't anywhere near the difference in Chicago's win, but it sure couldn't have hurt the Blackhawks. And it sure didn't help the Ducks.
Here is a screenshot of the front row behind the Chicago bench after the final horn sounded. Think the Blackhawks didn't feel just a little bit at home in this game?
The home crowd isn't to blame for any loss, but by sheer fan support alone, the Blackhawks wanted this series more than the Ducks. And so they were rewarded with another great, clutch performance from their captain, Jonathan Toews.
To this point, it has been considered a fait accompli that Duncan Keith was the runaway favorite to win the Conn Smythe Trophy should Chicago go on to win the Cup. Keith's ironman ice-time statistics—not to mention the tangible stats on the scoreboard—have received most of the accolades so far.
But then Captain Serious, Toews, made his bid. Keith won't mind if Toews overtakes him for the Conn Smythe—after all, that would mean a Stanley Cup for his team. But we still have one more series to go before we figure out just who was Chicago's best player in the playoffs.
Toews scored Chicago's final two goals in a miraculous effort just to get the game to overtime in Game 5, and he scored the first two goals for the Blackhawks on the same ice in Game 7. Toews, all of 27 years old, with two Cups and two Olympic gold medals to his name, is trying his best to make the final two rounds a Conn job.
Keep in mind that Toews did all of the above against a Ducks team that had the last change in Games 5 and 7. Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau could match up anyone against Toews in those games, and yet the Chicago captain scored four goals in them.
As Dr. Phil would ask, "How did that work for you?" To be fair to Anaheim center Ryan Kesler, though, he didn't play against Toews as much as one might expect on home ice. That's on Boudreau, too.
Toews, as could be expected from a guy nicknamed Captain Serious, didn't gloat afterward.
"That was a test," Toews told NBC's Pierre McGuire on the ice after the game. "That's a heck of a team. Not saying we didn't have some momentum coming into this series, but I think they proved how good of a team they were. We had to earn every little bit of success we got, and I think tonight, we knew it had to be our best game, and it definitely was."
Boudreau, with this loss, now has a 1-6 career record in Game 7s as an NHL coach. It's clear he doesn't have the right skills yet to instill a killer instinct into his teams. The sad truth: Up 3-2 in this series, Anaheim allowed the first three goals in both Game 6 and Game 7. The players share the blame, but accountability starts at the top.
Toews made a mockery of Kesler in the penultimate game, just like he has in two previous Olympic years (2010 and 2014) and in previous playoff series when Kesler was a Vancouver Canuck. Toews not only scored the two goals, but he won 57 percent of his faceoffs, while Kesler, who gets to put his stick down first as the home-team player, won 45 percent.
Let's face it: The Ducks blew this series, and it will haunt the franchise for a while to come. They were up 3-2 in a series that arguably shouldn't have gone on that long in the first place. Chicago's triple-overtime win in Game 2 and double-OT victory in Game 4 were both games in which Anaheim had numerous chances to put them away before they got that far. But the Ducks couldn't do it.
Still, things looked good for Anaheim, even in the late stages of Game 6 in Chicago. The team got off to a bad start (down 3-0), but by the early part of the third period, when it was 3-2, Anaheim had Chicago back on its heels.
But again, Anaheim couldn't do it in the clutch. Toews and Co. could, which is why they are going to another Cup final and Kesler, Ryan Getzlaf (minus-four in Game 7) and Corey Perry are going home to their covenant-controlled McMansions, sans a Cup ring. Again.
In the last two Game 7s Anaheim has played on home ice, the Ducks have been outscored 11-5.
Is it time for Boudreau to face questions about his job?
NBC analyst Mike Milbury thinks so. Milbury said after the game that questions have to be asked by general manager Bob Murray about Boudreau's status. Maybe that's a bit harsh, but maybe not. This is a Ducks team that had all the right things going for it after Game 5. But Anaheim played as if it didn't want it badly enough in the last two games. Someone has to pay for that.
After the game, Boudreau talked to the media about the crushing loss, via the Ducks Twitter account:
Boudreau: "Sometimes things just don't work out. They care so much, they're gonna feel it for a long time."— Anaheim Ducks (@AnaheimDucks) May 31, 2015
Now it's Blackhawks-Lightning for the Stanley Cup. Chicago has to be the favorite, and yet Tampa Bay has already knocked off three Original Six teams on the way to the Final. The Lightning clearly are not intimidated by tradition.
But they have yet to face Jonathan Toews in a series he really wants to win.