CHICAGO — In the end, the difference was a deflection. In overtime of Game 7 of the Western Conference final Sunday night, Los Angeles Kings defenseman Alec Martinez threw an innocent wrist shot at the net. The puck went off the upper body of Chicago Blackhawksdefenseman Nick Leddy and fluttered in the air, flipping like a coin, heads, tails. It fell behind goaltender Corey Crawford, and that was it.
The Kings had won, 5-4. The Blackhawks had lost. The Kings had advanced to face the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup final. The Blackhawks had not. In a sense, it was the perfect ending to an epic series of exhilarating action and head-scratching goals and strange bounces and impressive comebacks – a series so evenly matched that it could be decided only by the hockey gods.
“That was probably the most emotional seven games I’ve ever played – the most emotional series, if you want to call it that – because of how games were won and lost, and the series leads back and forth,” said Kings captain Dustin Brown. “But at the end of the day, I think it’s because you had the last two Stanley Cup champions. The hockey was good. I mean, it was sloppy, but it was exciting.”
At stake was more than one series, more than even one Cup. At stake was supremacy in the salary-cap era. No one has repeated in the NHL since the Detroit Red Wings won Cups in 1997 and ’98, and no one has won three Cups in five years since the Edmonton Oilers won three in four in 1987, ’88, and ’90. Though the salary cap arrived in 2005-06, the Blackhawks had a chance to do both. They won the Cup in 2010, purged half their team because of cap issues, rebuilt their supporting cast and won the Cup again last year. They had a chance to redefine the word “dynasty” for the modern age.
They battled back from a 3-1 series deficit, rallying from third-period deficits in Games 5 and 6. They had the third-period lead in Game 7. They were right there, minutes from playing for the Cup again. But Marian Gaborik tied the game 12:43 into the third, and then Martinez’s wrister went off Leddy 5:47 into OT. Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews’ head drooped on the bench.
“If you look at how close we were, how competitive it was, it’s a tough league,” said Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville. “It’s a tough thing to do to win the Cup. I couldn’t be prouder of our guys the way we competed. It’s a tough situation, down 3-1, and we were one shot away from going and trying to do it again.”
Quenneville looked OK in defeat. He wasn’t.
“I’ve lost some tough games,” he said, “but nothing like tonight.”
Only one team has won two Cups in the cap era: the Blackhawks. But now the Kings have a chance to become the second, and if they do it, the fact that they beat the Blackhawks along the way will make it all the more meaningful. The Kings won the Cup in 2012, taking a 3-0 lead in each series and finishing the playoffs with a 16-4 record. But as Brown said: “A big reason we won in 2012 was because [the Blackhawks] got knocked out in the first round.” The Kings returned to the Western Conference final last year but lost to the Blackhawks. As Brown said: “They smacked us around in five games. It could have been four.”
These Kings are better, with a more experienced core, the addition of Gaborik at the trade deadline and the development of youngsters Jake Muzzin, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson. They have taken a harder road this time – coming back from a 3-0 series deficit to beat theSan Jose Sharks in the first round, coming back from a 3-2 series deficit to beat the Anaheim Ducks in the second round, sticking with it to beat the Blackhawks in the third round. They faced a 2-0 deficit in Game 2 and faced the possibility of a 2-0 series deficit against their nemesis, but they rallied. After coughing up a 3-1 series lead, they came back to tie Game 7 three times and then got the last goal. They became the first team in NHL history to win three seven-game series to make the final – and won all three of those Game 7s on the road.
“Within the past few years, we’ve tried to earn the respect of the league,” said Kings winger Justin Williams, who hit the jackpot Sunday with his seventh Game 7 goal in the seventh Game 7 of his career. “L.A.’s not just a place to come and play a hockey game and work on your tan. It’s a tough loop in California right now to play. We want to put L.A. on the map and put it significantly on the map with regards to hockey.”
Just playing a series like this with the Blackhawks meant a lot to the Kings, no matter how the bounces went. Consider that Kings coach Darryl Sutter said their best performances came in Games 1, 5 and 6 – the games they lost. “Shows you how close the teams are,” Sutter said. “I know playoffs are based on wins and losses, but we talk about a lot more than that.”
We will talk about the results, though. History remembers winners. Now the Kings have a chance to be talked about as more than just champions, but as an organization that can sustain success, an organization that can contend year after year despite the cap and break through more than once, an organization like the Blackhawks.
“It’s very, very difficult,” Brown said. “You look across the hall. The reason they’ve done it is the way that their team is built. I think we’re built in a very similar manner in the sense that we’ve had a group of guys that have been together. I can’t stress that enough. They have that core group of guys, and they find ways to mix in guys each and every year to contend.”
Several Kings players talked about how this group was “special.” Sutter just smiled.
“Well,” he said, his bag at his feet, ready to catch a flight, “we’re going to try to beat New York. Then we’ll be really special.”