CHICAGO -- The sting was etched upon the faces of the Chicago Blackhawks and hung on every word they spoke following a classic Western Conference Final that ended with a 5-4 overtime loss in Game 7 on Sunday at United Center.
After battling back from a 3-1 deficit in the best-of-7 series, the defending Stanley Cup champions finished their season one goal short of returning to the Stanley Cup Final.
"We were pretty close to getting to the big dance," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "You look at how close we were, how competitive it was, and it's a tough League. It's a tough thing to do, to win the Cup. And I couldn't be prouder of our guys. The way we competed in some tough situations down 3-1 and [being] one shot away from going and trying to do it again."
As he continued, it became evident just how hard this loss was to swallow, not only for him but everyone associated with the team.
"We're in a tough division and some tough teams and some tough games," Quenneville said, referring to hard-fought victories in the first two rounds against Central Division rivals in the St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild. "But finding ways to overcome all those obstacles after what happened last year and this year was … I've lost some tough games, but nothing like [Game 7]."
Once the initial pain wears off, however, there might be a second wave of regret that lasts a little longer. Once they review their run through the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Blackhawks will find a number of areas that led to their ultimate downfall, such as falling behind in two of their three series.
They were able to blow past the hard-hitting Blues in the first round in six games after dropping the first two, but their penchant for getting into sticky spots eventually caught up to them against the Kings, who have had their own issues with having to dig out of holes this postseason.
When the Blackhawks look back at the 2013-14 season, they're going find a lot of positives to carry into their next quest for the Cup, but they're also going to find some flaws that need to be addressed.
Here is a list of five that were most evident:
1. Push the pedal down
Six times in these playoffs the Blackhawks built themselves a two-goal lead in a game and then allowed the opponent to tie the game. It happened four times against the Kings, including early 2-0 leads in Games 2, 5 and 7.
They only won Game 5 among that trio, and it took double overtime to do it -- after falling behind 3-1 in the series. Five of those two-goal leads, in fact, were 2-0 margins that never got extended to 3-0 before the opposing team got its first goal.
Quenneville often talks about the importance of getting off to strong starts in games, especially at home, but the Blackhawks' inability to protect leads negated those great starts time after time in this postseason.
For the entire 19 playoff games, they couldn't hold third-period leads in six games -- three of which happened against the Kings (Games 2, 6 and 7, with 2 and 7 at United Center)
In the regular season, they couldn't hold third-period leads in seven of 22 games that went past regulation, including four two-goal leads in the third.
That's something that must change if the Blackhawks want to get back to the top of the NHL.
"I think we checked pretty well all year," Quenneville said Sunday. "I thought we played two teams in the first two series that there wasn't a lot of room, wasn't a lot of space. We didn't give up much. Little bit more open in this series. We were productive, but we have to be better keeping it out of our net."
2. Center of debate
The Blackhawks have won the Stanley Cup twice without a long-term answer at the second-line center spot and came as close as you can get to playing for a third with the same situation.
The Blackhawks have gone several years in search of a legitimate second-line center to win faceoffs regularly, take some heat off whichever elite wings get put on that unit and defend well enough to satisfy Quenneville's stringent two-way demands. Despite some hard work there by Andrew Shaw in the final three games against Los Angeles, they're still looking for a solution.
Veteran Michal Handzus was able to plug the hole adequately in the 2013 Cup run and is solid on draws, but at age 37 he isn't able to keep up with the speed demands of the new-look NHL in a top-six role. Marcus Kruger has the speed and improved greatly on faceoffs but doesn't have the prototypical size most coaches covet in their top centermen, which also is an issue with Shaw.
Prized Finnish center prospect Teuvo Teravainen has similar concerns in that regard, but he's an elite skater, has improved greatly in the faceoff circle and has a high-end skill level. Whether he's the answer or not, there remains a glaring hole in the middle of that second line and it's probably time to address it. The Kings, who are loaded down the middle with quality centers, exposed it in at least three of their victories.
3. Clean it up around the net
This doesn't need too much of a breakdown. The Blackhawks simply left too many loose pucks around the net in the conference final and too many Kings uncovered in the same vicinity. The results were ugly, stunning and a stark contrast to what happened in the first two rounds.
For the most part against the Blues and Wild, Chicago was sound defensively in front of goalie Corey Crawford. Defenders did a solid job of clearing rebounds and loose pucks away from dangerous areas near the net. Against the Kings that became an issue. It started in the third period of Game 2 and lasted for the bulk of the remaining five games.
Blown defensive assignments down low became a regular occurrence, even among the top four defensemen, and at other times the Kings simply outworked the Blackhawks in those areas to put pucks past Crawford. It caught up to them in the end.
4. Power outage
The Blackhawks did not reveal any injury information after their season ended Sunday, so it's tough to say if any physical ailments factored into some uncharacteristic struggles for two of the Blackhawks' top goal-scorers, left wing Patrick Sharp and right wing Marian Hossa.
Injury rumors abounded about Sharp as the playoffs progressed, but he played well in the final three games against the Kings, scoring two goals in Game 7 to put Chicago in front on each. He just didn't score overall like he did in the Blackhawks' Cup runs of 2010 and 2013, when he led the team in goals. Sharp, who was shuffled in and out of the top-six forwards group during the playoffs, finished with five goals, five assists and had a minus-2 rating in 19 playoff games, but had a 5.2 shooting percentage on 57 shots heading into Game 7 against the Kings. During the regular season Sharp scored 34 goals on 313 shots, a 10.9-percent rate.
Hossa's struggles to put the puck in the net were more pronounced. While he had 12 assists for a solid 14-point postseason, Hossa scored two goals on a team-high 75 shots for a 2.7 percentage, down nearly 10 percentage points from his 12.4 shooting percentage on 30 goals in the regular season. He also finished even in his plus/minus rating after going plus-28 in the regular season.
5. Go deep again
One significant difference between this season and last for the Blackhawks was how short the bench got during crunch time against the Kings. During the 2013 championship run Quenneville had the luxury of throwing four solid lines at opponents to match up equally or overpower teams that had to start double shifting their best players.
Quenneville and Kings coach Darryl Sutter shortened their benches in Game 7, but for the bulk of the series it was Los Angeles that was able to play its fourth line, centered by former Philadelphia Flyers top center Mike Richards, for more quality minutes.
In Game 6 of the 2013 Cup Final against the Boston Bruins, Chicago's second checking line had former two-way center Dave Bolland at left wing, Kruger in the middle and speedy veteran Michael Frolik on the right wing. That unit is the one that produced the Cup-clinching goal at TD Garden, when Bolland scored 17 seconds after forward Bryan Bickell had tied it 2-2 with 1:16 left in regulation.
Bolland and Frolik were traded weeks after the Cup win and the Blackhawks never regained that quality of forward depth in the 2014 playoffs, playing mostly nine forwards for much of Game 7.
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