By Adam Hoge-
CHICAGO (CBS) — In a battle between hockey’s two most resilient teams, one team had to eventually lose.
And on this Sunday night, it turned out to be the Blackhawks.
Game 7 of the Western Conference Final going to overtime was easy to predict. What happened next was not.
The Kings and Blackhawks were so evenly matched that they could have played on forever — if not for the funky bounces of a hockey puck, that is. At some point it was going to do something weird and end up in one of the two nets.
Fitting then that the game-winning goal wasn’t even properly credited to the right player.
Kings defenseman Alec Martinez was given the goal, but Tyler Toffoli appeared to get his stick on the puck in mid-air as it traveled toward the Blackhawks’ net. From there, it deflected off Blackhawks defenseman Nick Leddy and hopped awkwardly over Corey Crawford’s shoulder before sending the Kings to face the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup Final.
“They got a fortunate bounce on the winner,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said after the 5-4 overtime loss.
Such is hockey. Overtime doesn’t always end with a fancy Patrick Kane trick shot.
Hockey players know that the bounce of the puck can sometimes end their Stanley Cup dreams, but that doesn’t mean that Sunday night’s Game 7 loss will be easy to swallow for the Blackhawks. They blew another two-goal lead — their fifth two-goal lead blown in the playoffs — and entered the third period with a 4-3 lead.
Of course, the way this series had gone, that meant nothing. In fact, advantage Kings.
Sure enough, Marian Gaborik tied the game with 7:27 left in the third period by making his own luck. Gaborik crashed the net hard and the rebound off Dustin Brown’s shot hit Gaborik right in the chest and landed at his feet, allowing him to score the easy goal.
Overtime. This series deserved that much.
“Quite honestly in this series, as a group, we thought our best games were 1, 5 and 6, so that tells you how close the teams are,” Kings coach Darryl Sutter said.
Games 1, 5 and 6 were, of course, the three games the Kings lost in the series.
And that’s exactly why many believe the Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy to win in sports.
“It’s a tough league. It’s a tough thing to do to win the Cup,” Quenneville said. “And I couldn’t be more proud of our guys the way we competed. Tough situations, down 3-1 (in the series). One shot away from going to try to do it again.”
Quenneville was hurting from the loss, but he was still able to appreciate everything his team had accomplished this season, coming off the shortest offseason in NHL history.
“We’re in a tough division and some tough teams and some tough games, but overcoming all those obstacles after what happened last year and this year, was, well, I’ve lost some tough games, but nothing like tonight,” he said.
The Blackhawks aren’t used to losing like that. In these past two postseasons, until Sunday, they’ve always been the team celebrating, not the team standing around waiting for the handshake line. And, unfortunately, they’ll always be the team that was standing in the background while the Kings celebrated winning one of the best series hockey has ever seen.
“People forget pretty quick about the team that came up short. We never want to be that team,” Jonathan Toews said.
As captain, no Blackhawks player spends more time speaking for the rest of his teammates during the course of a year than Toews. But as the season ended Sunday night, Toews ran out of things to say.
“I’m out of words right now to describe this team and this group,” he said. “It’s no fun right now. It’s not what we felt we deserved.”
Neither team deserved to lose that series. But one had to.
Adam Hoge is a senior writer for CBSChicago.com and a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.