By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) “I thought that was the year we were going to win it, but that’s the way things go in hockey.”
So said former Blackhawks coach Billy Reay, looking back on Game 7 of the 1971 Stanley Cup Final. His team had taken a 2-0 lead late in the second period against star rookie goaltender Ken Dryden and appeared in control of its championship destiny until hockey happened.
Then Montreal’s Jacques Lemaire unleashed a slap shot from the Chicago Stadium red line that somehow eluded all-star goalie Tony Esposito and put the Canadiens back in striking range in a game they would go on to win 3-2. Reay also recalled another moment of ill fortune from earlier in the deciding game.
“I remember (Bobby) Hull hit the crossbar with a shot that would have made it 3-0,” he said.
Alas, so it goes. The flukiest of major sports makes for the most gnawing, uncomfortable losses, as was the Blackhawks’ season-ending 5-4 overtime setback to the Kings last night in Game 7 of the Western Conference Final.
Alec Martinez throws a shot toward the goal that grazes Nick Leddy’s shoulder and tumbles softly past Corey Crawford into the net, and the party’s over. The two scintillating wins that forced last night’s drama were rendered inconsequential by a deflection and a flutter. Time for handshakes and for the bros at the bars to go home and shave.
Some memories of Chicago playoff failures remain painful, but at least more palatable in how they made sense. Chris Conte stopped his feet, Randall Cobb ran right by him, and Aaron Rodgers exploited the blown coverage. Jerry Dybzinski overran second base, and Tito Landrum homered. Derrek Lee ripped a game-tying double off Mark Prior. The Redskins scored 20 unanswered points, and Walter Payton fumbled in the fourth quarter. Lebron James guarded Derrick Rose.
Even when the Blackhawks fell to the hated Canucks in a similar situation — overtime of a Game 7 – in 2011, Alex Burrows pounced on a turnover and drilled a shot over Crawford into the upper-left corner, with no dumb luck. The result was clearer and more understandable, not to mention earlier on in the postseason before the stakes had risen.
Experienced hockey observers will be quick to point out that this is the very nature of the game, one in which fleeting moments keep connecting and disconnecting with a high degree of randomness. The best teams do the right things all of the time, creating higher likelihoods that they’ll string together a chain of small outcomes that builds into something larger. Put simply, talent and effort make luck.
Patrick Sharp’s go-ahead goal last night was its own magic bullet, seemingly defying physics as it laser-guided around the blocker side of a perplexed Jonathan Quick. It’s when you’re on the wrong side of hockey weirdness, though, that it feels unjust.
Not like that, in other words. Not after coming back to beat the Blues and outclassing the Wild, and not after roaring back from trailing the Kings three games to one. Not in the same series that saw the Patrick Kane brilliance of a four-assist night in a double-overtime win in Game 5 and his three more points on the road in Game 6.
Not on home ice, off a defenseman’s arm.
There will not be two more weeks of packed taverns, no mayoral wagers of deep-dish and thin-crust and no more mentions of dynasty. The pop-up indian-head merchandise kiosks on city street-corners are being packed away.
It could so easily have been different, and in that truth lies the pain of the most inscrutable sport.
That’s the way things go in hockey.