CHICAGO – They're heading back to Southern California weary and banged-up, but no physical pain will match what the Los Angeles Kings feel on the inside.
The Kings did everything they could on Saturday night to keep alive the dream of defending their 2012 Stanley Cup championship, but the Chicago Blackhawks were just too much to overcome. Chicago's 4-3 victory in double overtime of Game 5 in the Western Conference Final was great viewing for fans – who saw the Kings twice come back to tie the game in the third period – but it left the guys in the visitors' locker room at United Center feeling hollow.
"I don't take much solace in losing," Kings forward Justin Williams said -- almost choking on the words as he they spilled out. "It's a bitter taste and yeah, we were one of the final four … but that wasn't our goal when we set out to start the season. We're not able to defend what we did last year, and that's a frustrating thing."
They'll look back on this game and the best-of-7 series as one gigantic frustration.
After losing the first two games in Chicago, the Kings kept right on losing – everything but Game 3 at Staples Center – until this game finally ended their season 91:40 after it began. The third of Patrick Kane's three goals in the game, scored at 11:40 of double overtime, was the final nail.
The Kings lost center Mike Richards for three games with an upper-body injury after a hit by Dave Bolland late in Game 1 and lost for the first time on home ice in the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs when the Blackhawks won Game 4 on Thursday to go up 3-1 in the series.
That defeat is what put them in the precarious position of facing the Blackhawks in Game 5 at the place nicknamed the "Madhouse on Madison Street," with their season on the line. Three of the five games in this series were decided by one goal and another, L.A.'s 3-1 win in Game 3, was a two-goal margin because of Dwight King's empty-netter.
"We're not in a profession of what-ifs," said Williams, who scored two goals in the series and added an assist on King's shorthanded goal in Game 5. "We're in a profession of results. It doesn't matter how they got the goals. They got them. They scored the big goals when they needed them. We scored some big goals too, but couldn't get over that hump."
This game, in many ways, was a fitting end to a tough series. The Blackhawks jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the game's first 5:59 on goals by Duncan Keith and Patrick Kane, only to see the Kings fight their way back to a 2-2 tie on King's shorthanded tally midway through the second and Anze Kopitar's power-play tally early in the third.
It got even crazier in the final minutes of regulation. Kane scored his second goal with 3:52 left to give Chicago a 3-2 lead, only to have Richards force overtime with a goal that deflected off his pant leg and into the short side with 9.4 seconds remaining.
Richards, playing for the first time since the hit from Bolland, finished with a goal and assist. Kopitar did, too – he picked up the primary assist on Richards' goal by launching the shot that found its way past Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford.
Richards didn't spend a lot of time talking with the media after playing 22:55 in a game he was said to be "50/50" to play.
"Yeah, obviously excitement," he said of his game-tying goal at the end of regulation. "Very exciting and I thought we had some confidence going into the overtime period and we played well in the second, third and even overtime. I thought we had a lot of chances. Give them credit, they played well and their goaltender made some big saves … and a big play at the end [for Chicago]. That's about it."
Asked what he felt was the main difference in the series, Richards just hunched his shoulders a little.
"Not sure," he said. "It was a pretty close series."
It was pretty stinging, too – mentally and physically -- for the team that came up on the short end.
"We wanted to keep playing," said center Jarret Stoll, who missed six of the Kings' seven games in the conference semifinals against the San Jose Sharks with an upper-body injury believed to be a concussion. "We wanted to play until the end of June; that was our goal. That was our mindset. We just didn't have it against these guys. They're a great team; wish them all the best. They've got a lot of great players and they play their system and they're well-coached. We just couldn't find a way to win a road game and I guess they pushed us back to L.A."
Getting within three wins of a trip to the Stanley Cup Final was no consolation to a team that felt it was capable of becoming the first team since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and '98 to win back-to-back championships.
"I was just disappointed," Stoll said. "You can't be happy with losing. You never are, whether it's the Western Conference Final or Stanley Cup Final or not even making the playoffs. It's that same empty feeling."