CHICAGO -- It ended with the traditional handshake line as the NHL's playoff trail winds ever closer to its conclusion.
Maybe it's because we watched this series from the edge of our seats with our breaths held and were left more breathless throughout this memorable seventh and deciding game, but we imagined that the mutterings in that snaking line of sweaty men held more import than otherwise.
We imagined after watching the gritty, grinding Los Angeles Kings advance to the Stanley Cup finals for the second time in three years that those words exchanged between two championship-caliber teams -- two titans that played that way through every moment until Alec Martinez's point shot deflected off Chicago defenseman Nick Leddy and past Corey Crawford 5 minutes, 47 seconds into overtime -- would somehow pay homage to what will be remembered for a long time as a classic.
In many ways they did.
In the Kings' locker room, where newly minted Western Conference champions T-shirts hung from locker stalls, captain Dustin Brown tried to put into perspective what this win meant for a Kings team that had blown a 3-1 series lead and trailed 2-0, 3-2 and then 4-3 Sunday night before finding a way to emerge victorious.
"I think tonight was different just from a sense, because of the series," Brown said. "I said this once already, this was probably the most emotional seven games I've ever played, combined, a series, most emotional series because of how games were won and lost and series leads back and forth."
A year ago, the Blackhawks dispatched the Kings in five games en route to a Cup championship, but there was little in the way of "revenge" talk in the Kings room. Last year, the Blackhawks smacked the Kings around, Brown said, but this year there's a different sense of respect between the two teams.
No matter the graciousness of the Kings in victory, the reality is that whatever words were spoken would provide little solace for the crestfallen Blackhawks, who controlled this game early but were undone by sloppy play and by the utter mediocrity of netminder Crawford, who allowed five goals on 32 shots and, over the last six games, allowed 25 goals.
"There's no consolation for a loss like that," said captain Jonathan Toews, who scored the Blackhawks' second goal of the game to give them a 2-0 first-period lead.
"What can you say, we have a heckuva group in there. It's tough to lose. It's hard to admit to ourselves this season is over. Not a good feeling, especially given the circumstances, how hard we fought, how badly we wanted to win this year. It's impressive. Top to bottom, we've got a lot of talent. I think we've got more character than anything. I could go on and on about that all day. Tough way to go down."
The offseason will feature discussion about the Blackhawks' goaltending and where the depth down the middle will come from long term. But it seems more than a little nitpicky to explore flaws in a team that fell one goal shy of putting itself in prime position to become the first repeat Stanley Cup champ since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997-98.