NASHVILLE -- What the Blackhawks accomplished during six months of the regular season was extraordinary. They won 50 games and seized a Western Conference championship with a roster that featured seven players who would make their playoff debuts.
Alas, what happened to the Blackhawks when they arrived to the Stanley Cup grind was also hard to do and hard to watch. They scored but three goals in eight days and were swept out of the tournament with Thursday night's 4-1 conquest by the Nashville Predators at Bridgestone Arena.
Not since the National Hockey League grew to its present size has a No. 1 seed been eliminated by a No. 8 in straight sets, but the Blackhawks cannot say they achieved this milestone (millstone?) by accident. From Head Coach Joel Quenneville to captain Jonathan Toews, the vanquished favorites formed an echo chamber.
From the opening puck drop in Game 1, they foraged about, looking for that "switch" to effect a desired and necessary compete level. And, as if stumbling around in a dark room, they never located it. Strange but true, for a group with this pedigree. Power outage, just when more energy is required.
"We couldn't find a way," mused Toews.
The Blackhawks dressed seven defensemen, including Michal Kempny, and needed all of them during the first period. It ended 0-0, but the score flattered the guests. Where was that desperation? Corey Crawford was the star of the show, with all respect to Luke Bryan, who sang the National Anthem.
The Predators finally dented Crawford midway in the second period when Roman Josi registered his first of two. Meanwhile, Crawford's counterpart, Pekka Rinne, was dealing with an increasing number of chances - usually one and done, some missing the net entirely. But at least the Blackhawks and the puck were becoming acquainted again. However, it was the Predators who found a way. Colton Sessions rapped a shot off the pipe, the puck plopped into Crawford's blocker, and he inadvertently tossed it into the net. He basically had kept the Blackhawks in the game, but now they were just about out of it, down 2-0 at 8:52 of the third.
Josi made it 3-0, Toews clicked on the second half of a double minor power play, Viktor Arvidsson punctured an empty net, and there were the Blackhawks. Shaking Nashville hands, shaking their own heads. They made a mess out of this week, and a hero out of Rinne in Music City.
This Nashville team is barely a reasonable facsimile of the Predators who used to hang on and hang around, waiting for opponents to make errors. Unlike the 2010 crew dispatched by the Blackhawks en route to their Stanley Cup, these Predators press the issue, rush up ice, and can score. They registered only four fewer goals than the Blackhawks over the 82-game regular schedule. Then, in 12-plus playoff periods, the Blackhawks were forced to retreat to the perimeter and devolved into the gang that couldn't shoot straight.
The last time the Blackhawks incurred a playoff sweep was in 1993, when they lost four straight to the St. Louis Blues in the Division Semifinals. That unfolded a year after the Blackhawks roared into the Final on an 11-game winning streak, only to be swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Blackhawks lost four straight in the 2002 Conference Quarterfinals against St. Louis after winning the opener.
Perhaps the most upsetting Chicago post season experience was in 1991. The Blackhawks won the Presidents' Trophy with 106 points and were pitted against the lowly Minnesota North Stars, who finished fourth in the Norris Division with only 68 points. The North Stars stunned the Blackhawks, who lacked discipline throughout the series and bowed in six games. The North Stars did advance through the Campbell Conference to the Final, losing to Pittsburgh.
What happened to the Blackhawks this week would have to rank right up there with what they did to themselves in 1991. Or, more accurately, right down there. Three goals in four games. Works for soccer, not for hockey.