Hawks face Kings in rematch of 2013 Conference final – Game 1 SundayContinue reading.
Requiem for a Champion: Living on the edge ultimately the root of Blackhawks’ 2014 demise
It’s not that the Blackhawks played too many games. It’s that they played too many close games.
To their credit, the Hawks would not use the fatigue as an excuse after losing the Western Conference final to the Los Angeles Kings in a magnificent seven-game series. From the condensed 48-game schedule of the post-lockout season in 2013 to a 23-game grind of the playoffs and the summer of celebrating another Cup victory to a full 82-game schedule in 2013-14, with 10 Olympians and a 19-game playoff grind in 2014, the Hawks were taxed like no other team in the NHL over the past 17 months.
But as it turned out, it was the avoidable mental grind of one close playoff game after another that ultimately doomed the Hawks — 18 of their 19 playoff games were one-goal games or closer in the third period; 13 of them were tied in the third period. Of their 11 postseason victories, eight were tied in the third period and three were one-goal games in the third period.
The Hawks never got a chance to breathe. In the two “blowouts” against the Wild, the Hawks were protecting a 3-2 lead with 3:30 left in Game 1 and a 2-1 lead with 3:00 left of Game 2. Even in the one game out of 19 that wasn’t tied or within a goal in the third period, the Hawks were trailing 4-1 in Game 4 against the Kings but fighting back the entire period — they got within 4-2 and weren’t out of it until the Kings scored with 1:02 left.
In a battle of the two most resilient postseason teams in the NHL, it’s no surprise the Kings had more left in the tank at the end. The Kings at least gave themselves a mental break every now and then — they’ve had three-goal leads in seven playoff games for a total of 143:10 — that’s more than seven full periods of hockey with a three-goal lead. The Hawks? They had three-goal leads in three games for a grand total of 16:34 — not even one full period.
The only time the Hawks had a chance to breathe was when they were up by two goals — and it cost them. Up 2-0 in Game 2 against the Kings, they allowed six unanswered goals. Up 3-1 in Game 5, they allowed three unanswered goals. Their 2-0 lead in Game 7 didn’t even last the first period.
The Hawks are one of the most mentally tough teams in the league. But no matter how hard a team plays, no matter how badly it wants it, the grind takes a mental toll that can’t be replenished on a stationary bike after the game or between periods — it makes it a little tougher to win a puck battle; a little tougher to keep an opponent from standing in front of the net; a little tougher to clear the zone. And as the Hawks know all too well, all it takes is one mistake to beat you. Ultimately, it was the little things that beat them.
“I thought both teams were in a comparable situation,” Quenneville said, “playing the number of games we had over the last couple, three years and in the Olympics. They had six. We had 10.
“I thought our guys were fine. As the series got deeper, we seemed to get better. I don’t think fatigue was a part of it. I might have seen more fatigue in Game 7, but both teams [were affected] because the ice was heavy and it might’ve shown a little bit. But that didn’t seem like there was a progression of fatigue as we progressed. But certainly the demands of playing as many games as we have over the post couple years — it’s pretty amazing how they keep pushing.”
With three weeks more of an offseason this year and without the fanfare of a Cup celebration, the Hawks figure to be better rested for next season. But they might want to do themselves a favor and find a way to use their vaunted mental toughness to put the hammer down when the have the chance instead of waiting to the very end to finish the job. It’s not as exciting. But there are benefits that pay off in the long run.