ANAHEIM -- One year ago, the Chicago Blackhawks’ season ended in silence, in front of a stunned United Center crowd after Los Angeles Kings defenseman Alec Martinez scored in overtime to win Game 7 of the 2014 Western Conference Final.
The 2015 Western Conference Final ended with thousands of Blackhawks fans serenading their team on enemy ground.
Captain Jonathan Toews scored twice in the first period to help the Blackhawks defeat the Anaheim Ducks 5-3 at Honda Center in Game 7 and advance to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Game 1 of the Final will be Wednesday at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla. (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).
“Yeah I mean, we haven’t done anything yet,” Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane said. “It’s a great step, especially from where we were last year. We were in this position last year and we didn’t get the job done. And then we have another opportunity a year later. For that to come about, I think everyone just wanted to take advantage of the opportunity and not have the same feeling we had last year.”
The Blackhawks will play for the Stanley Cup for the third time in six seasons; they won it in 2010 and 2013.
Chicago is the first team to reach the Cup Final three times since the salary cap was instituted in 2005 and could become the first team to win three titles in six seasons since the Detroit Red Wings from 1997-2002.
"We never really stopped believing in ourselves," Chicago forward Patrick Sharp said. "We were hearing a lot of things about our team in the regular season. Seems like we put things back together at the right time and we're back in the Finals with this group. We know what we have in this room, we believe in each other, we believe in the organization, and it really doesn't matter what other people say."
The Ducks ended their season with a Game 7 loss at Honda Center for the third straight season. They have progressed further each year, losing to the Detroit Red Wings in the first round in 2013 and the Kings in the second round last season.
Anaheim led each of the three series 3-2, only to lose Game 6 on the road and Game 7 at home.
"It's one of those things. You just feel like you are getting closer and closer and we keep continuing to improve, but we can't seem to get to the point that we want to," Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler said. "I don't know what that is, but it is going to take a while to digest this. It's something I'll be thinking about for a while."
Toews gave the Blackhawks a 1-0 lead 2:23 into the first period. Chicago defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson blocked two shots at one end of the ice, including one while sitting on the ice, then received a pass from Kane at the other end. Anaheim goaltender Frederik Andersen stopped Hjalmarsson’s long-range shot, but Toews was at the edge of the crease to score off the rebound.
Ducks forward Jakob Silfverberg stopped Brandon Saad from having a breakaway but took a penalty midway through the first, and Toews made it 2-0 at 11:55. The puck went from Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith on the left wing to Brad Richards at the top of the offensive zone to Toews, and his shot beat Andersen with the help of a screen from Andrew Shaw.
Toews has nine goals in the 2015 playoffs, which ties his career high. He has 18 points, which puts him two behind Kane for the Blackhawks lead.
"I think you definitely feed off the confidence that it gives you," Toews said. "You want to consider yourself that type of player at the end of the day. But it helps when you're alongside guys that have those same intangibles.
"The guys I'm sitting with right here [Keith], [Kane], [Sharp], [Marian] Hossa, the guys that have been around for years and have had the experience down the stretch in the playoffs, we feed off each other."
Saad gave the Blackhawks a 3-0 lead 1:18 into the second period. He started the play by winning a race on the forecheck. The puck went off Chicago defenseman Johnny Oduya and into Kane’s path near the left circle. Saad was ready for the pass and an easy tap-in with Andersen out of the net to challenge an expected shot from Kane.
The new-look top line didn’t account for all of the goals. Marian Hossa, formerly of the top line, made it 4-0 at 13:45 of the second. Anaheim was dominating play and was desperate for a goal, but Chicago was able to counter with odd-man breaks on several occasions.
Andersen stopped a shot from Richards but pushed it directly into Hossa’s path. The puck went off Hossa’s skate and in, and the goal was upheld by an official review. It was Hossa’s fourth goal of the postseason.
Ducks center Ryan Kesler scored late in the second period, and Corey Perry scored midway through the third period to make it 4-2, but Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook’s slap shot on the power play after a diagonal pass from Kane gave Chicago a 5-2 lead with 6:37 remaining in the third.
It was Kane’s third assist of the game; he has 20 points in 17 games this postseason. Kane fractured his left clavicle in late February and was originally projected to miss 8-12 weeks, which could have meant he would miss the conference final. He was in the lineup for Game 1 of the Western Conference First Round, and along with Keith and Toews is a leading contender for the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Ducks forward Matt Beleskey deflected a Cam Fowler point shot with 41.3 seconds left on the power play to make it 5-3, but the Blackhawks fans in attendance had already started celebrating at that point.
"There were no easy games," Toews said. "There was nothing given to us. There was no moments in this series where there were any lulls that maybe Anaheim didn't play their best hockey and we got away with it. We had to earn everything against that team.
"It was an incredible test for both teams."