Hockey

Why It’s So, So Hard to Beat an NHL Champ

Call it NHL: Regicide Edition.

The Chicago Blackhawks lost to the St. Louis Blues on Monday, which ended their playoff run at seven games. This follows the dispatch of the Los Angeles Kings, which the San Jose Sharks accomplished last weekend.

Together, the Blackhawks and Kings have won five of the last six Stanley Cups. They have reigned over the league while the rest of us puttered around like peasants. Now both have been bounced in the first round of the playoffs. They will be missed as one might miss a bunion, or a carton of expired milk.

However, before the second round gets underway in earnest, I wanted to take a moment to highlight just how frickin’ hard it is to beat these guys; how close they were to winning their series anyway; and why they’ll be back in Cup contention soon.

Blues vs. Blackhawks

The Blues seemed to have it bagged going into Game 5. They were taking a 3-1 series lead home. The Hawks’ top five scoring threats, some of the most clutch forwards in the league, had zero goals.

Then the Hawks’ Patrick Kane won Game 5 in overtime. Chicago had planted a seed of doubt, and it knew that just as any older brother would. (Remember the Har-bowl?)

Game 6 was in Chicago, and the Blues took an early 3-1 lead. Again, that’s where you expect a team to buckle under the pressure: Two goals down against a suffocating St. Louis defense, the entire series on the line.

Not the Hawks. They scored five unanswered goals and sent it to Game 7.

Game 7 was war. St. Louis, as usual, took a 2-1 lead into the 2nd period. You’re the home team in a Game 7 — you got this, right? Wrong. Chicago leveled it in the 2nd.

Early in the 3rd, St. Louis got the go-ahead goal from Troy Brouwer, but only after he overcame some supernatural force that wanted to keep the puck out:

Was Chicago dead? Of course not. In the last five minutes, they nearly tied it:

That would have sent it to overtime. And I don’t have to explain, by now, that you don’t pick against the Blackhawks in overtime. By all rights, they were done: exhausted, with less depth than the Blues, beaten within an inch of their lives. And yet. One favorable bounce and they could’ve won.

“I had my chances,” said Chicago captain Jonathan Toews. “Like in times in the past, I kept telling myself there was going to be an important time I would find a way to score a big one. I was telling myself right down to the last draw.”

That is the team the Blues beat.

Kings-Sharks

If Hawks-Blues was a Rocky movie, this series was a zombie movie. The Kings were dead virtually from the get-go: The Sharks snatched the first two games in LA, where the Kings were 26-12-3 in the regular season.

LA took Game 3 in OT, but the Sharks answered with a home victory in Game 4.

3-1, Sharks. In hockey history, only 8.7 percent of teams in that position have come back to win the series.

But of course, the Kings have beaten longer odds. In 2014, they came back from a  3-0 deficit to beat the Sharks — and win the Stanley Cup.

And so, the Sharks stood there with their pump shotgun, blasting shell after shell into the Kings’ undead body as it continued, against all reason, to advance.

In Game 5, an elimination game for the Kings, the Sharks took a 3-0 lead. Insurmountable, right? Nobody gives up a 3-goal lead in the playoffs, not at home, and not against the team that’s humiliated it.

Hi, have you met the Sharks?

But wait.

Uhm…

The Staples Center was in pandemonium at this point. The fans are losing their marbles. The Kings are skating the Sharks into the ground. This is the best I can describe the cult-like zeal that gripped the Staples Center and had the Sharks paralyzed. The scoreboard said it was a tie game and the home team was down two games in the series. But the Kings and their fans knew, then and there, that they could win the series.

Fortunately for the Sharks, Joonas Donskoi scored a silencer at the start of the 3rd. Then Jonathan Quick let in a softie through the five-hole. (That came out wrong.) The zombie fell to its knees, and the Sharks blew its gooey brains out with an empty-net goal.

But for that Donskoi goal, the Kings looked capable of the comeback.

What the Sharks saw was the power of belief. Elite hockey teams, teams that have gone all the way, can call on their experience in a way their opponents cannot. Cup winners have implicit self-belief. They think there is no lead they can’t overcome. They believe the clutch goal is always at hand. You can outplay them completely, and still there’s always a part of them that thinks they’ve got the jump on you.

“There’s a reason teams win and it’s not skill … it’s this inner confidence that you have where you think you can make the other team crack,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of the Hawks after the series. “[You learn] just how deep you have to go emotionally. You’ve got to go so deep, to where it’s so uncomfortable.”

When you look at it this way, you can appreciate the impressiveness of the Hawks’ and Kings’ reign.

It wasn’t just their talent. It was also their mental edge.

Both teams drafted all-world players for their core, and they won Cups young.

Then, over time, more and more of the secondary talent on the team left — for money, for ice time, for legal reasons, etc. They became more and more dependent on the core to carry the team.

They were able to pull it off, for a while. But it’s hard to win in the playoffs without depth. When the other team knows your key players, it can key in on them:

How much of that can a man take?

And so, now the Hawks and Kings have to figure out how to retool for another Cup run. As the above shows, they’re not that far from it.

On the other hand, their rights to the Cup are no longer exclusive. Their biggest rivals now know they can be beaten.

The barbarians are at the gate. It’s only a matter of time before they get in.

 

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