By Jay Zawaski-
(CBS) It’s taken me nearly 48 hours to find the will or enthusiasm to write this end-of-the-season story for the Blackhawks. When the conclusion isn’t a Stanley Cup, it can be difficult to find the right words or even think with a level head. The 2014 Western Conference Final will go down in history as one of the most evenly matched and exciting series in recent memory.
— There were 51 combined goals, the Kings scoring 28 and the Blackhawks netting 23.
— Chicago held a 115-113 advantage on shots in the series.
— Los Angeles held a 155-152 advantage in Fenwick (shots on goal plus missed shots) in the series — or 50.5 percent to 49.5 percent.
Despite all the accolades for the series, despite how well the Kings played and despite the Blackhawks’ valiant attempt to storm back from a 3-1 series deficit, there’s still a feeling of missed opportunity for Chicago.
When the Blackhawks eliminated the St. Louis Blues in six games, many (myself included) felt Chicago had eliminated its biggest threat in the Western Conference. Then, the Montreal Canadiens went ahead and knocked out the Boston Bruins. Everything was breaking the Blackhawks’ way, it seemed. The Kings seemed to be the last roadblock to the Stanley Cup Final, and the Blackhawks certainly had what it took to win that series.
Only they didn’t.
There’s no need to rehash the game stories of all seven games. But more than 48 hours later, I can’t shake the feeling that the Blackhawks blew it, rather than the better team winning. Out-of-character penalties, falling asleep on a puck they assumed went out of play, blowing countless two-goal leads and a head coach’s stubbornness — these are things that cost Chicago a trip to the Cup Final.
Let’s begin with Joel Quenneville, who’s of the best coaches in the history of the game. I don’t know if there’s a coach who better manages a roster of stars than Quenneville. His veterans are happy and content, and typically those are the most important parts of a championship roster.
However, his refusal to play the best players may have cost him another Stanley Cup. Throughout the playoffs (and for most of the regular season), he straddled Patrick Kane with Michal Handzus as his center. Handzus, for all his savvy and experience, is no longer a productive offensive player. It took until Game 5 for Quenneville to put Kane with Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw. When he did, the line exploded for 19 points in three games. Too little, too late. The Blackhawks were already down 3-1 and had no margin for error.
What might have been?
Quenneville also continued to dress Kris Versteeg, who was an absolute detriment to the team every time he was on the ice. He managed three points in 15 playoff games. He finished the playoffs minus-5. He was a positive Corsi player in only seven of his playoff games. He provided almost literally nothing to the team. He wasn’t scoring, defending, checking or contributing. Why was he in the lineup?
The Blackhawks had been called the “deepest team in hockey” for much of the regular season, but when the conference final began, they were really only rolling three lines. Versteeg, Handzus and Brandon Bollig were hardly playing. Nick Leddy was benched for large chunks of third periods and overtimes. For a core that’s played as much hockey as the Blackhawks have over the last 18 months, rolling four lines was critical. The Kings had the depth. The Blackhawks didn’t.
This team had holes, and those holes must be filled in the offseason.
Stan Bowman has been a wiz with salary cap management, and his drafts have looked solid. The only question that remains is his ability/willingness to deal from his NHL roster. If he wants the Blackhawks to return to their 2013 form, he might have to make a number of unpopular roster decisions this summer.
Jay Zawaski covers the Blackhawks for CBSChicago.com and 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @JayZawaski670.