Still the Kings of Game 7s


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.

Chicago launched 41 shots at Jonathan Quick, who had his own struggles, allowing a weird bouncing goal from Patrick Sharp just 12 seconds after the Kings had tied the score in the first period, but who rebounded to make just enough of the tough saves to give his team a chance to come through.

With 5.6 seconds left in regulation, for instance, Quick was able to get his left pad on an Andrew Shaw chance from the left side with Patrick Kane on the doorstep.

"You look back through the series, and save percentage obviously is an important stat for goaltenders, but I think it goes unsaid [that] there's certain saves that Jon Quick makes that changes the outcome of games," Brown said. "He might give up four but make two saves he shouldn't have made that change the outlook of a game. That was probably one of them at the end of the third; that's why I think he's one of the best goalies regardless of what his numbers are this postseason. He's confident in himself. We're confident in him."

This isn't to suggest that Crawford was the sole reason the Blackhawks didn't advance. Guys such as Marian Hossa, who had just three assists in the series, and Bryan Bickell, who seemed to crumble under the weight of his new contract as the playoffs went along, also struggled to produce in a timely fashion.

Those are the fine lines that separate great teams.

"Well, it was just like Game 5, the overtime, a lot of chances back and forth," Chicago winger Ben Smith said. "A pretty high pace and, you know, unfortunately for us they got that first bounce and found a way to bury one on us.

"It stings right now, obviously. It's hard to believe that it just came to an end like that, but at some point we'll look back and be proud of this group and know that there are a lot of good years left and relight our fire here for years to come."

In the final accounting, the Kings' depth and inexhaustible will to win carried them into NHL history as they became the first team to win three straight seven-game series on the road.

On this night, they got goals from five players and 10 Kings recorded points.

Of course, you knew that Justin Williams, now 7-0 in Game 7s with seven goals and seven assists in those games, would be in the middle of the action with a goal of his own as well as an assist on the overtime winner.

"Really wouldn't have meant anything if we didn't come out with a victory," he said after.

"The story is how we were able to come back and how resilient we were, how awesome this series was to play and be a part of. It was just fitting. It ended in Game 7 in an overtime."

The game marked the third time in the series that the Blackhawks scored first but ended up losing. Twice it happened at home. But the Kings insisted that, even when they trailed early and the United Center appeared to be shaking on its foundations, they would not go out so easily.

"I mean, games have their own storylines. Every single game does. Every series does," Williams said. "Obviously we're looking around after being down 2-0, saying, 'This wasn't it for us, it wasn't going to end this way.'

"Heck, we've battled back so many times this year, so many times so far in these playoffs. We said, 'Why not again today?' Total team effort. Every single guy gave everything they got. I think the emotion at the end of the game spoke to itself."

This was a series that featured two soundly built franchises with an enviable blend of skill and grit, youth and veteran experience. It was a series without a moment of the sideshow. Physically pounding, but there were few, if any, cheap shots. There was little after-the-whistle junk or sparring in the media between games as though it was beneath them, as though they understood every ounce needed to be poured into the game.

Brown talked about the emotion in their room during Game 7 and how the players spoke to each other frankly about staying focused.

"It's just a trust system and a belief system within this room of a result of being together for hundreds of games together and climbing the hill the once and trying to do it again," Brown said. "We know what to expect, and we expect a lot from each other. And there's times when there's not nice things said to each other, and it's all in the nature of motivating each other and motivating each other to be better. When you have guys that have been together, you're capable of holding each other accountable and pushing to the next level."

While the Kings were already looking forward to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals Wednesday against the New York Rangers, there was still a moment of looking back at having been part of something special, a part of history, really.