CHICAGO -- When they look back at the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs with a critical eye, the Chicago Blackhawks are going to have an extra sting added to the end of their season.
Aside from finishing one shot away from advancing to the Stanley Cup Final a second straight year, losing 5-4 in overtime of Game 7 to the Los Angeles Kings at United Center on Sunday night, the Blackhawks' inability to hold leads caught up to them.
The defending Stanley Cup champions couldn't shake a playoffs-long trend of coughing up leads in Game 7 against the Kings, frittering away leads of 2-0 and 3-2 in the first period and 4-3 in the third. For the series, The Blackhawks saw nine leads melt away thanks to the persistence of the Kings and some defensive lapses and, at times, Corey Crawford's goaltending.
Five of those leads were one goal, but four were two-goal leads against Los Angeles, including three by 2-0 margins to start Games 2, 5 and 7. They allowed 30 goals to the Kings after giving up 27 combined in the first two rounds against the St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild.
"It seemed like, obviously, we gave up a lot of leads this series especially," Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith said. "You go back to Game 2, we had the lead going into the third. I don't know. We played hard, but it just seemed like, obviously, you've got to give L.A. a lot of credit. They were resilient and never gave up. In Game 7, overtime, anything can happen."
That thrilling Game 7 was a prime example.
Instead, the Kings battled back, same as they did for all but the first game of the series, which Chicago won 3-1. Jeff Carter and Justin Williams scored less than a minute apart late in the first, at 16:31 and 17:22, and again the Blackhawks had blown another early two-goal margin.
Patrick Sharp provided the second of three leads for Chicago 12 seconds later for a 3-2 lead after 20 minutes, but Tyler Toffoli scored 10:31 into the second. Sharp put the Blackhawks ahead, 4-3, with a power-play goal at 18:25 of the second for a 4-3 advantage, but again the Kings knotted it at 12:43 of the third on Marian Gaborik's 12th goal of the playoffs.
Los Angeles booked its trip to the Stanley Cup Final when Alec Martinez's relatively harmless shot from the point deflected off Chicago defenseman Nick Leddy and eluded Crawford to end the series 5:47 into overtime.
"They made plays and they scored two quick goals on us," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "Getting that third one [by Sharp] certainly put us in a good spot and [we] had a one-goal lead in the third period. We got maybe a little bit stationary and, you know, we didn't give up a ton. Had some looks, had some chances and a breakaway in overtime [by Saad] and it's one of those goals [by Martinez] that it was a tough one."
The Kings never stopped coming after the Blackhawks all series long, after losing to them in five games in the 2013 Western Conference Final. Eventually they were rewarded for the effort and move on to face the New York Rangers in the Cup Final.
"We never thought we weren't going to do it," Kings defenseman Drew Doughty said. "Two of their goals were pretty lucky, one from behind the goalie [by Saad] and the chip shot or whatever that was [by Sharp]. We weren't going to let those kind of goals defeat us. We knew that we were going to get them back, get some dirty goals from crashing the net. That's basically how we won the game, we never gave up."
The Blackhawks left the series saying the same thing, after coming back from a 3-1 series deficit to force a Game 7 on their home ice for the second straight postseason. Had they won, they would've been the first team in NHL playoff history to accomplish that feat in consecutive seasons and win each series.
"It stings right now, obviously," Blackhawks forward Ben Smith said. "It's hard to believe that it just came to an end like that, but at some point we'll look back and be proud of this group and know that there are a lot of good years left and relight our fire here for years to come."
If they're going to get back to this level of the playoffs again, or further, finding a way to protect leads will have to be solved. It wasn't just a problem against the Kings.
In total, the Blackhawks squandered 18 leads in their three series, including six two-goal advantages and four by 2-0 scores.
"I think we checked pretty well all year," Quenneville said. "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."