Monday, June 2, 2014

Gut-Punch Game 7 Overtime Loss Ends Blackhawks' Season

This is a tough one to swallow. There’s no other way to put it. With a Game 7 overtime loss, after the Blackhawks had climbed back from a 3-1 series deficit against the L.A. Kings, Chicago fans have experienced a gut-punch loss that hasn’t been felt around here since maybe even the Bears Super Bowl loss in early 2007. It’s shocking, really. There's a depressing haze hanging over the city and surrounding areas this morning; a palpable, downtrodden feeling of shock and loss. When that overtime winner went in, I couldn't believe it. I was even asked right away - was this real? Did it count? Was there an offsides, a penalty, anything? There was just no way the Hawks had just lost that game, after all they'd been through, all they'd fought for. The Hawks just win these games. In clinchers, at home, with a series on the line, you always just feel that the Hawks have this one. They’ve been there before, and time and time again they've come away with the win. 

This time, though, the Kings won on the same fluky goals they’ve been scoring all series long. It took a random deflection off Nick Leddy, who was trying to block the shot, that led to a freak arching rebound up and over an unsuspecting Corey Crawford. There was nothing that could have been done about the shot, except that it came in overtime of a Game 7 that had a trip to the Stanley Cup Final on the line. What makes this all the more worse for us Hawks fans, though, is that it came on the heels of a comeback from a 3-1 series deficit. For them to storm back to tie the series, with a chance to take Game 7 at home to return to the Final only to lose in overtime; well, it’s kind of difficult to come to terms with how they lost this series.

To be sure, the Hawks didn’t play their best hockey at all this postseason. They struggled in each series to have any sort of consistency on the backcheck and the forecheck, and there were stretches of times in each series where the feeling was that the Hawks were done, that this was yet another rebuilding season after a Stanley Cup championship. You would think that would build up some sort of acceptance level for how far the Hawks advanced, and encouragement towards next year and the future of this team. But then, there go the Hawks, storming back after going down 3-1 to an outstanding Kings team. They started playing like the old Hawks, with a fierce forecheck and clutch play, and you could tell that this team didn’t have quit, and that the core and strength of this team could overcome some weaker teammates and a surprising lack of depth to get after it.

That’s what makes this a special team. This Hawks team, unlike the two Cup teams of 2010 and 2013, had a surprising lack of forward depth. The team has been weak down the center of the ice after Jonathan Toews for years and has desperately been searching for a good second line center who can win face offs, play both ways, and facilitate offense with Patrick Kane on his line. The Hawks’ inability to win faceoffs was devastating throughout the series and led to some horrible possessions where the Kings simply worked it around, waiting for a clear lane to throw the puck at the net. Even worse, the production from the fourth line dramatically dropped off. Kris Versteeg followed a disappointing regular season with a stinker of a playoffs, including a few healthy scratches and almost zero production. Brandon Bollig was ineffective when he did play, but that really is par for the course at this point.

This one will be hard to recover from
The troublesome aspect for me, though, was the drop off in defensive quality by nearly all forwards. I thought the top line of Bryan Bickell, Jonathan Toews, and Marian Hossa played fantastic both ways, but the Kings’ line centered by Jeff Carter ripped the Hawks apart. Weak backchecking and clearing attempts from Blackhawks forwards and defensemen were bad all series long. Just think about how many rebounds came off to open Kings players in front of the net and how many boards battles were lost by the Hawks and led to clear chances for the Kings in their offensive zone. Backchecking can be an effort thing, and perhaps the Hawks were tired, from their short offseason, the olympics, and the fact that Joel Quenneville was forced to roll 3 lines due to poor play by the fourth line.But that doesn't absolve the fact that the Hawks were outworked in their defensive zone. 

One of the positives to take away from this, though, is the discovery of the Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw, and Patrick Kane line. I don't always agree with Quenneville's coaching and personnel decisions (like his refusal to play Jeremy Morin, who brings more offensive power than Versteeg or Bollig, for example), but this one was brilliant. The three immediately meshed, with the toughness and grit of Shaw, the explosive offensive firepower of Saad, and the elite, even unbelievable playmaking ability of Patrick Kane. This line has a promising future. 

It’s crazy to think that the Hawks nearly made it back to the Stanley Cup Final without an effective fourth line. It tells you how special and elite the core for this team really is. Brent Seabrook had a horrible drop off in play in this series, to be sure. I honestly don’t know what happened to him, but he looked slow, out of position constantly, and was so bad that Quenneville was forced to shift his defensive pairings. But other than that, this team showed that not only are they elite on paper, but they have the toughness, grit, work ethic, character, and intangibles that could makes this team successful for years to come.

Last year they had more effective support from depth players, and they won the Stanley Cup. That fact alone has me encouraged for the future. The likes of Teuvo Teravainen, Mark McNeill, Phillip Danault, Stephen Johns, Kevin Hayes (if the Hawks get the guy actually signed) and even guys currently on the team like Jeremy Morin (who should have been playing all along and will of course be gone this offseason because that’s what the Hawks do), Kris Versteeg (he can’t really be that bad, right?), and especially Brandon Saad, who I think has future superstar written all over him, all make the future look bright for the Blackhawks. It is up to Stan Bowman and Quenneville now to look at the failures of this group, recognize the deficiencies, and actually grow from their mistakes, to rebuild this team on the fly back into a team that makes it next year. We know this core can get it done. Give them the support they need.

This loss is going to hurt for awhile. The way it went down, the confidence we had back after coming back from the 3-1 deficit; right now it just doesn’t make sense and doesn’t register. I’m trying to come to grips with a loss like this. After the Hawks won their first Cup, they were bounced out in the first round the next two seasons. This year, as the Hawks advanced, even with their shortcomings I felt that, hey, we’ve seen this movie before, and it ends with a damn parade in Chicago. In the end, though, the Hawks couldn’t overcome a surprising lack of depth, some severe defensive lapses, horrible, horrible luck, and, pure and simple, an outstanding Kings team. Hopefully we can try to all get over this loss soon, get through a quick and bad Chicago sports summer, and get ready for a great Blackhawks season in 2014-15. I know it won’t be easy.


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