Blackhawks Fall Short
The Stanley Cup hasn’t been in the same hands for two consecutive summers since the 1997 and 1998 Detroit Red Wings, and it won’t happen this year either. But a return to Chicago in 2015 is entirely possible.
There is no shame in losing to the Los Angeles Kings, so goes the narrative in Chicago today. After watching this incredibly hard-fought series thrash back-and-forth over the last two weeks, one had to wonder if the teams would at some point throw out the playbook and concede playoff hockey is a complete crapshoot.
But no, relentless determination was all that you could see on the ice. Poise, focus, and composure. Every player really giving 110%, confident in their individual ability and teammates yet anxious to overcome the unstoppable opponents.
This was one of those rare series were even the most wise of hockey experts struggled to pick a winner–or, in perhaps more difficult terms, pick which one would be sent home for the summer. At the end of ESPN NHL analyst Pierre LeBrun’s lengthy series preview column, he wrote:
“You hate to ever pick against the Kings because they just keep showing they know how to win at this time of year. But the short turnaround between series and the 14 games played … I just think the Blackhawks are rested and have home-ice advantage, which might just be the sliver of a difference they need. But it’s going to be awfully close. Toss-up of a series for me.”
Toss-up of a series, hmm? Sounds about right. The Hawks and Kings have to be two of the most evenly-matched teams to meet this late in the playoffs–as evidenced by the fact that the deciding Game 7 was decided by a series of bounce angles that did or didn’t guide the puck into the back of the net.
Countless remarkable achievements can be reflected upon from this series for both teams. The Hawks faced three elimination games. Two of them went into overtime, risking season sudden death. They trailed in all three, including twice in the third period. That, of course, includes the improbably-probable Game 6 comeback where Duncan Keith scored with less than nine minutes remaining to tie it, and Patrick Kane scored with less than four to get the lead.
Yes, it was one of countless unlikely runs the Hawks have gone on. Which made it almost…likely. The run ran out of steam when an unlucky bounce off Nick Leddy’s shoulder earned Drew Doughty the series-winning goal.
But not to worry. An early look at the offseason reveals the Hawks have little that would prevent them from fielding another elite team next season. Of course, there will be some departures and some new pieces. Defenseman Sheldon Brookbank, centers Michael Handzus and Peter Regin, wingers Jeremy Morin and Ben Smith, and goalies Nikolai Khabibulin and Antti Raanta are all free agents and there’s no chance all of them return. But none of them, except maybe the 36-year-old Handzus, are core members of the team.
Raanta, a great #2 goalie this year, may be in line for a bigger contract, but GM Stan Bowman can surely find an able replacement. A certain former-Hawk Antti Niemi may even be available in San Jose. Superstars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are under contract until for another year. While now would be a good time to start extension talk, there’s no indication either wants to be anywhere else than the city they’ve taken over in the last six years.
The good times should continue for the hottest franchise in hockey. The tale of the Hawks’ franchise ascension is so incredible it’s almost overexposed, but the facts are that the Hawks remain hockey’s biggest market, with the league’s largest local TV audience and unmatched star power. In short, nowhere in the country, or even Canada probably, is it more ‘in style’ to be a hockey fan right now than Chicago. There’s a reason Chicago put up a ridiculous 22.7 TV rating (800,000 homes) for Game 7 compared to LA’s mediocre 4.8. But 2014 just wasn’t the year.
Even after Doughty’s United Center-silencing overtime goal put an end to the mayhem that was the Western Conference Final, there was one more fascinating series moment. The famous handshake line, perhaps the greatest show of good sportsmanship remaining in American professional sports.
Considering the brutal nature of hockey, where players routinely scuffle dozens of times every game, where games pause to allow for periodic one-on-one fistfights, and where a bloody nose is simply a sign of a hard day’s work, seeing a guy who just shoved another to the ice a few minutes ago extend his hand in virtue of gamesmanship to the same player is a miraculous pillar of hockey.
Never was this more true than at the end of that handshake line last night. A pair of rival Stanley Cup Champion and William M. Jennings Award (for the NHL’s best goalie) winners in Corey Crawford and Jonathan Quick approached one another, masks off. The two got so heated in Game 6 that Crawford hung around at the second intermission and waited for Quick to come off the ice, butting heads and trying to drop his gloves before officials separated the two. See the video here.
But in that moment last night, not a foul word. A handshake. A brotherly pat on the chest from Crawford, the agitator in Game 6. And a mutual look of understanding that epitomized the entire series.
What a ride.