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Blackhawks Mon Jun 02 2014
It's been said the hardest thing to do in sports is to repeat as champion. No truer words have been spoken about doing it in the NHL.
With a bullseye on your back the entire season, every other team in the league aspires to take the throne right from underneath you and put on the crown as champs. This is exactly what happened when the Kings ended the Blackhawks' run as defending Stanley Cup champions by way of a 5-4 loss in overtime Sunday night at the United Center.
It was a season that felt as exhausted as running a marathon. After coming off a short offseason, sending 10 Olympians to Sochi for the Olympics and clawing back against the Blues and Wild, the Hawks made believers out of those with even a slight shred of doubt with amazing comebacks and dizzying goals late in nail-biting games.
In round one, the Hawks found themselves down quickly two games to none to a very aggressive St. Louis Blues squad. The Hawks played tough, but the feeling of a team destined to repeat wasn't as clear as the previous year.
The Hawks stuck to their game plan and won four straight to send the Blues packing, which setup a second-round meeting against the Minnesota Wild. In what seemed like a really good matchup for the Hawks only proved to be another test for Joel Quenneville in how to overcome a very good defensive effort that limited the Hawks in shot attempts.
Once again, the Hawks found a way to better control the puck in possession, which led to more shot attempts and, eventually, another matchup against the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference final.
While the Hawks beat the Kings in five last year, this clearly wasn't going to be the same team that was hampered with injuries and, just as the Hawks this season, wore the bullseye as defending champs. Even after the Hawks took Game 1 by the final of 3-1, there was something different about the way they were going about playing in the game.
The Hawks were outshot 26-20 in that game, but still managed to take advantage of a team that already came back to win back-to-back Game 7s and little-to-no sleep flying in to Chicago. It was a running theme throughout these playoffs: the Hawks were more talented, top to bottom, than any of the 16 teams in the postseason, but were getting outworked and outplayed in each game.
After going up 2-0 in Game 2 against the Kings, it seemed the Hawks were going for the kill in this series, until Jonathan Quick made a fantastic save against a Brent Seabrook shot on a two-on-one break. From there, the floodgates opened and the Kings scored six straight to win it 6-2 and tie the series.
The next two games were the worst of the year for the Hawks, losing badly and looking like a team that didn't want to skate anymore and instead head home to sleep off their hangover. Of course the Hawks were down three games to one last year against the Detroit Red Wings, only to come back in a series for the ages. This time around, it had that different feeling.
The Hawks continued to show resolve and won the next two in stunning fashion. Patrick Kane showed the world why he's the most dynamic player in hockey and Brandon Saad grew even more mature in the process. Still, though, even with Game 7 at home at the United Center, things still didn't feel right.
This was a Kings team that found itself in its third Western Conference final in a row, and a team that found ways to neutralize whatever the Hawks threw at them. Even with a red-hot line of Kane-Shaw-Saad, the Kings found a way to neutralize their open opportunities in the middle of the lane, despite the first two goals of the game.
It seemed all season the Hawks had a hard time protecting a lead. It goes all the way back to the third game of the season when Alexander Steen fired a slapshot with only 22 seconds left in regulation to give the Blues a win. This all stemming from Brent Seabrook being out of position and late to defend, a theme that would run throughout the season.
The Kings absolutely deserve the series and should win it all to take their second Stanley Cup in three seasons. Talk about a team in the dynasty conversation.
The Hawks will now get some much-needed rest in the offseason; some injuries that were kept secret will now become public information; the front office will reassess a few moves (Kris Versteeg), which may or may not see players off the team; and Teuvo Teravainen will more than likely get his shot on the second line come October.
So no parade, no rally, no Champagne showers at Rockit Bar. Just time to reflect on a long season that brought joy to a lot of fans, if only interrupted by a quicker ending than expected.
The Hawks will be back to contend next year for sure, and in years to come. And while this loss still may hurt (maybe it's the shots of Malort you took Sunday night?), you can recover a little easier knowing this was a great series and the Hawks lost to a great team. So in between suffering through Cubs and White Sox baseball, tune in to the Final between the Kings and Rangers. You'll better appreciate how good they are.
Now get some rest. The pre-season starts in three-and-a-half months.