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Between the Dots: Blackhawks come up short after epic series

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks
Bill Smith / Chicago Blackhawks

For Chicago fans, how it ended really hurt. But for hockey fans everywhere, the shame was that it had to end at all.

If worldwide audiences fixated on being royally entertained had a vote, the Los Angeles Kings and Blackhawks would have skated on and on for a dozen tomorrows, until every athlete on either side became a 98-pound weakling.

In real life, two tremendous teams were by rule compelled to conclude an epic series Sunday night or Monday morning, if necessary. Game 5 of the tournament had been spectacular, except that Game 6 might have topped it, leaving little room for Game 7 to be soldered in our memories.

But the climactic act was another keeper, especially for the guys in white and black. When Alec Martinez’s shot took an indirect route into the net at 5:47 of overtime, the Kings claimed a 5-4 victory at the United Center to win the Western Conference Final, 4 thrillers to 3.

The Kings shall open the Stanley Cup Final Wednesday evening at home against the New York Rangers while the Blackhawks will chafe about what might have been. They fell behind in the tournament, 3-1, rallied to tie it, then stormed to a 2-0 advantage Sunday night, blowing what was left of the building’s roof after a screaming room only throng of 22,316 had greeted the defending champions to the Madhouse on Madison.

The noise was enough to wilt a lesser bunch, but anybody who ever watched Darryl Sutter perform on skates here knew that he would coach mental toughness 24/7. His Kings did the Houdini thing in two previous series, clinching on the road after absorbing three-game losing streaks against San Jose and Anaheim en route, so defeat without effort was no option now.

The Kings trailed 3-2 on Patrick Sharp’s first goal of the evening, then 4-3 on his second during a powerplay late in the second period. The Blackhawks were 20 minutes away from chasing their Stanley Cup-or-bust mantra for 2014, maybe a rare repeat title, along with all of the attendant dialog about dynastic status.

But the Kings were thinking a bit of history, too. Marian Gaborik, a vital acquisition late in the post-season, scored at 12:43 of the third and it was 4-4. Then, the 51st goal of a frenetic series: Justin Williams provided the puck for Martinez, whose drive glanced off Nick Leddy and over Corey Crawford. It appeared that another Los Angeles player touched the puck between Martinez and Leddy, but no member of the Kings much cared.

They gathered to celebrate another stunning Game 7 party crasher while the Blackhawks stood there, eyes glazed. Crawford hunched over and stayed that way until protocol required handshakes of genuine respect. Some fans clapped thanks for a special season. The boys of winter in red raised their sticks to express appreciation for perpetual sellouts, then vanished.

Captain Jonathan Toews, along with alternates Duncan Keith and Sharp, spoke in the locker room of frustration and disappointment. Sometime this summer, they might look back and take solace in the fact that participating in this series while losing was more rewarding than not partaking at all in such a shining example of hockey at its zenith.

But not now. The Blackhawks are in this to win, not accumulate nice tries. They dug a hole, a hole Los Angeles gladly helped them dig, and almost closed it as they had in series past. We probably don’t need to hear that the Kings wanted it more, because the competitive balance was that acute. Indeed, Sutter opined that the Kings’ three best games for overall merit were 1, 5 and 6—all losses.

Leads in this war of wills were ephemeral, although the Blackhawks bid to halt that trend Sunday night. With Brandon Saad tapping his stick anxiously, Patrick Kane found him with a genius pass and it was 1-0 in the sixth minute. Then Toews clicked on a power play at 8:36 against Jonathan Quick, who will not save the tape of this series for his grandchildren. But the pace of the action was so constant that the prospect of either goalie stealing a game in the classic sense did not beckon. When Crawford and Quick huddled during the postgame procession, they might just as well have congratulated each other on merely surviving. Standing on one’s head will have to wait for another day.

So shall the Blackhawks’ quest for another Stanley Cup. After a brutal winter in Chicago, fans flocked indoors on a balmy Sunday for the best show on ice. But by midnight, the boards at the UC center were already down. The season is over for the Blackhawks, but certainly not their window of opportunity. They will think about that soon. They should. Just not right now.

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