Too often in sports, people, myself included, will get caught up in the moment of a great game, series, or performance and declare it as “epic” or “legendary,” even if it really didn’t quite live up to such a billing.
However, the Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks was one of the best series in recent memory, not just in the NHL, but in all of sports.
A rematch of last year’s Western Conference Final, the extremely talented Blackhawks were once again pitted against the gritty, physical Kings, and the result was absolutely tremendous hockey between the last two Stanley Cup champions.
Game 1 saw the Blackhawks notch a 3-1 victory behind stellar performances from Brandon Saad and Corey Crawford, Game 2 featured six unanswered goals for the Kings and a hat trick for Jeff Carter, while Games 3 and 4 ended in Los Angeles victories to give them a 3-1 series lead.
It was at that point that the two teams elevated their play to a whole new level.
In Game 5, Patrick Kane, who had just a single point in the series’ first four contests, recorded four assists in the do-or-die game for the Blackhawks.
An extremely evenly-matched contest, with Chicago holding a slight 45-44 edge in shots on goal, the outcome wouldn’t be decided until minutes into the second overtime, when 37-year old Michal Handzuš brought the sellout United Center crowd to its feet by scoring the game-winner. That came after a superb first overtime period, which featured just under eight minutes of thrilling, continuous play. It was a period that was so good that Chicago coach Joel Quenneville proclaimed that it “might have been the greatest overtime I’ve seen.”
The dramatic win sent the series back to Los Angeles, where Kane demonstrated once again why he is one of the best players in the NHL, recording a pair of goals and an assist. The Kings scored two goals early in the third period to take a 3-2 lead, but Duncan Keith scored the equalizer midway through the frame and Kane netted the game-winner with 3:45 left in the game. The highly competitive contest even featured goaltenders Corey Crawford and Jonathan Quick exchanging words at the end of the second period.
That set up a decisive Game 7 back in Chicago, which ended up being everything hockey fans could have hoped for, and then some.
Game 7 got off to a flying start, with the two teams combining to score five goals in the first period, including three over a span of 63 seconds. Justin Williams also became the all-time leader in Game 7 points in NHL history (14) by adding a goal and an assist. Williams is also 7-0 in Game 7s during his career.
Los Angeles fought back from deficits of 2-0, 3-2, and 4-3, while also overcoming Patrick Sharp’s two-goal performance, to send the game to overtime. In the extra frame, defenseman Alec Martinez scored the series-winning goal to send the Kings back to the Stanley Cup Finals for the second time in three years.
The resilience that Darryl Sutter’s team showed in Game 7 is representative of what the Kings have been doing throughout the entire postseason.
They erased a 3-0 series deficit in the first round against the San Jose Sharks, and became the first team in NHL history to win three Game 7s on the road in a single postseason with their victory over the Blackhawks. The team’s never-say-die attitude has allowed it to rise the occasion every time the Kings backs have been against the wall, as they’ve gone 7-0 this postseason in elimination games.
Frankly, it’s a shame that one of these teams had to be eliminated from the playoffs, because both proved they were more than worthy of representing the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals against the New York Rangers. And not only was this a hard fought, relatively clean series, but these two teams have nothing but respect for one another, as evidenced by the handshakes at the conclusion of Game 7.
Whether the Kings have enough left in the tank to capture another Stanley Cup title after their emotionally and physically taxing series with Chicago remains to be seen, but their fans, and hockey fans everywhere, will always be able to look back on the 2014 Western Conference Finals with plenty of fondness.
And here’s to hoping that we see these two teams squaring off in a Western Conference Final rubber match this time next year.