Aside from the specifics of what happened in the Chicago-Ducks game Saturday night, which I detailed in my story “Down for the Three Count” at IH, other things stand out from this series.
First, the Blackhawks were quite concerned to avenge last season’s game seven loss to the Kings. They had said over the course of the series with the Ducks that one thing had little to do with the other, but here was what Patrick Kane said after the game: “We knew we didn’t get the job done last year. We had the chance in game seven in our home building to get it done, and here we are on the road in game seven, we get ourselves a comfortable lead and get a win. To have the chance a year later, to make sure we come back and take this makes it.”
Second, the series was not really as close as it appeared to be. As I said in my other story, in a way, it was lost when the Hawks tied the game with less than two minutes to go in game five, though they would lose quite quickly in OT. Game six was a shellacking for the Chicago team of Anaheim. Game seven turned out closer, but not really close enough at any point to say that the Ducks had a chance to win it.
Even at the individual level, you have to say that no one on the Anaheim team was the better player than any one star, and there are a bunch of them, on Chicago. Keith is amazing. No Anaheim defenseman has his chops. Of course, neither does anyone in the league, really, though a few come close.
Kane, even if you count him the team’s second best forward, was better than Perry or Silfverberg, or Getzlaf, or whoever is the Ducks’ second best. And Toews won the captain battle hands down with quiet, steady leadership backed up by consistent play on the ice.
Kesler might have been better than the best defensive forward on the Chicago side of the ice, and he did charge through with the goal on Saturday. He also ended with 13 points in 16 games, pretty good when your job in seven of those is to shadow the other team’s best guy. But there were times when he looked slow of foot as well.
Goaltending-wise, Andersen looked to have the edge going in, and people were keen to point out that Crawford had been pulled early in the playoffs. Andersen was great early, mediocre in games 5-6, and good in game 7. Crawford was good for the most part all along, if never great. But then, he never had to be. Andersen made the more beautiful and tough saves though he faced fewer shots. But Crawford’s steadiness won the series.
Coach Quenneville was asked about his goalie after the final game: “2013, he was outstanding. Last year, to go that deep in the playoffs, that’s something. This year, [Darling] came in, call it what you want, won a couple of big games. Corey stayed with it” after losing his spot to Darling, “and he got the net back, and so he knows what it’s like to be a good goalie.”
About his goalie and the question of whether he tired, Boudreau said, “It’ll be a question that I’ll ask myself. Or was Chicago getting better, getting better chances on him?” He later said he wasn’t laying any blame on Andersen. “He played his heart out too. Sometimes things don’t work out. Sometimes, you’re playing against a good team, and they just don’t let you do the things you want to do.”
Third, the Ducks felt like the changes they made to their team with the departures of Selanne and Koivu were enough, but they are not.
“We truly believed that we were a different team, and that we had a really good chance of winning five more games. It didn’t get done, and we’re going to have to live with that for the summer. But the same reason that they came to play each and every night is the same reason they’ll battle back,” said Boudreau in his press conference.
Players had said the same thing, including Fowler and Andersen, who said, “We truly believed this was a special group.”
Admittedly, this team felt different than the prior one. When you watch a Hall of Famer (or two—Selanne and Koivu) still able to do their magic late in their careers, you treasure every minute. You can’t quite imagine that it will end. It feels like this identity can’t ever be replicated. And it isn’t, but a new one emerges.
That, perhaps, is one thing that happened this year—a new Ducks team came alive. There were large swaths of time in the playoffs when I found myself forgetting all about Selanne. They would show him in the scoreboard, and I’d think, “Oh yeah. That was only last year he was here.”
And for large stretches of the season, it felt like Ducks 2.0, or whatever you want to call the post-Selanne Ducks, were good enough to go all the way. But in the end, they are a giant step short.
What’s missing? Consistency. Maturity. Depth. The failings are up and down the lineup. When their first line falters, as it did for parts of this series, the secondary scoring should pick up. Sometimes it does. Silfverberg had a near-team-high 18 points, bested only by Getzlaf and tied with Perry. But aside from him, there are some big empty spots in the scoring. Palmieri generates a lot of chances but had just four points. Cogliano had nine points but missed twice that many times. (“Franchise leader in creating false hope,” one reporter calls him.) Getzlaf, though he did lead the team in points, had just two goals.
Fourth, their coach has finally crossed the “no Western Finals” hurdle. But he needs to learn to jump higher. He said after, “I thought some adjustments made a couple of lines go better, but it wasn’t enough.” When asked how his team will get past the loss, he said, “We have four months. I’m sure they’ll move on.”
“I think we gained an appreciation this year for how tough every series truly is. You hear about it on TV, but until you really see how many hurdles you have to go through, it’s really difficult. I thought we had a good chance to get to the dance, but obviously we didn’t make it.”
Can he do better? He must, since he’s now knocked on the door of the Finals. Only making it will be good enough next time. Whether he’s a guy who learns and grows or peaks is the question. If it’s the latter, he won’t last much more than another calendar year in Anaheim.
Fifth, the Blackhawks won because they were focused solely on what they were doing in the moment. This was apparent when they were asked about their next opponent, obviously Tampa Bay, after the game. Patrick Sharp, for instance, said, “Don’t really know much about them. They’re an Eastern Conference team, so we don’t see them much during the year. They beat us pretty good.”
Quenneville said, “You can talk about different lines, you can talk about this, that, but it’s still to early to dwell on what they’ve been up to. But certainly watching their series with New York, you know they’ve got a lot of options.”
Kane said, They’re very fast; they’ve got a lot of offense. I’m sure we’ll get ready for them in the next couple of days, and know a little bit more about them going into, I think, Wednesday.”
Sixth, they also won because they got better as the series went on, and Boudreau said it. “I believe the Blackhawks got better. They came out and got two goals in the first few minutes, and they’re a tough team to catch up from.”
That’s what the best do. His tactics stayed the same. Quenneville’s evolved, as when he reunited Kane and Toews on the same line. Boudreau tried to answer, as I detailed in my first story, by mixing the lines in period two. It worked to make the Ducks look more in the game, getting chances. They controlled the puck for stretches of tens of seconds, rather than giving it up as they had done in period one. But in the end, the Blackhawks surged when they needed to. As Sharp said, “I think experience is an important factor this time of year. This group has been together for a few playoff series over the years, so we’re comfortable in big games, and we showed it tonight.