Blackhawks run out of ways to win

CHICAGO -- Saying the words "Game 7" has become casual shorthand for describing everything we want in sports.

Fans watch sporting events to feel something, to be out of control and helpless. Gambling their good sense for a greater reward, to bask in reflected glory. There is nothing in sports like winner-take-all.

Reporters covet Game 7s to write about something that truly matters, the purest form of competition.

For fans of hockey, Game 7 of the Western Conference finals gave you everything you wanted in a series that provided more excitement than you could imagine.

For fans of the Chicago Blackhawks, Game 7 gave you everything except the only thing that mattered, the final score, which was 5-4 in favor of the Los Angeles Kings.

In this Game 7, it came down to overtime to the surprise of no one, ending with a good shot, a lucky bounce or two and a stunned crowd.

All that work, all those games, morning skates to overtimes and just like that, one team is celebrating madly on foreign ice while the home team pays consoling visits to the losing goaltender, unsure of how to act.

What's that? The Blackhawks lost in the Western Conference finals? Do they still go to the Stanley Cup? This is unfamiliar territory in Chicago, home of the defending champions.

The losing locker room was mostly empty. A few players talked. What could they say?

As expected, Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews was eloquent in defeat. He has won two gold medals and two Stanley Cups in as many tries. No one in hockey knows how to win better than Toews. On Sunday night, he stood in front of reporters trying to explain what it's like to lose.

"When you get the chance to win a Stanley Cup and you win another one, you see how great it feels and how amazing it feels to be part of a group like that, that gives everything and you get the result that you want," Toews said. "Especially when a city like Chicago rallies around you. So to come up short, it's not fun, especially when we know what we're missing out on."

Yes, the Blackhawks dynasty is on hold. The Kings have a chance to match the Hawks with two Stanley Cups in this golden age of salary-capped hockey.

Even more impressively, the Kings will try to win their second Cup in three seasons after winning their third Game 7 in three playoff rounds this year. They will face the New York Rangers starting Wednesday in Los Angeles.

Chicago's summer vacation starts June 2 and it won't include a certain silver bar-hopping friend.

This team was far from invulnerable, and was the recipient of several lucky breaks, but if you've followed this franchise over the past few years, you felt that no matter the circumstances, the Hawks would find a way to win.

They came back from a 3-1 deficit against the Red Wings last season in the second round. They came back from a 2-0 hole against St. Louis in the first round this year. They brought it to Game 7 after falling behind 3-1 to the Kings.

You had faith in this team.

Then, with 5:47 into overtime, you had apostasy.

Kings defender Alec Martinez's hard shot bounced past goaltender Corey Crawford and it was over. Martinez's shot deflected off Hawks defenseman Nick Leddy and before that, maybe Kings center Tyler Toffoli. It wasn't clean, just efficient.

The Hawks led 2-0 in the first 9 minutes, then 3-2 after the first period, and 4-3 until 12:43 into the third period. The full-throated fans, a sea of red, knew how to feel.

Even in overtime, that excruciating man-made torture device, you thought the Blackhawks would get the lucky bounces, as they did here in Game 5.

In that game, the Hawks also squandered an early 2-0 lead and Michal Handzus, of all people, scored the game winner in double overtime.

But the Blackhawks, particularly the defensemen, looked tired in overtime and the deep, talented Kings finally ended a series that has been revered across North America.

On Sunday morning, reporters were asking Blackhawks if they could appreciate this series without knowing how it would end.

"Being a part of it, we know it's been special series, a lot of up-and-down, fast-paced games," forward Ben Smith said. "But we want to be on the winning side of it. The loser of this series probably won't be remembered."

Smith is a smart guy. So is Toews, that serious-minded young man.

After all, how often do people talk about the 2010 Flyers or the 2013 Bruins?

"People forget pretty quick about the team that came up short," Toews said. "We never want to be that team. I guess at the end of the day you can learn from some of it, but right now, I don't think we're willing to accept that or think about that yet."

When the Blackhawks went down 3-1 in this series, they didn't seem rattled. They felt destined to win. The following two games proved their faith in each other was real.

"There was that belief that we're the type of team that has a knack to find ways to win and to put pressure on other teams and make life difficult," Toews said. "We've got a lot of talent, but I think our character and our perseverance matches that by far. I don't know. I guess I'm out of words right now to describe this team and this group and that's no fun right now. That's not what we felt we deserved."

What we deserve isn't always what we get. The Blackhawks learned that hard lesson Sunday.