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The Kings triumphed by the tiniest margin imaginable last night. Los Angeles secured its victory after the teams battled to a tie at the end of regulation. The Kings have made a habit of taking series' to the limit during these playoffs, clinching three straight with game 7 victories on the road.
But even for them, last night was close. It was the first time they had gone to overtime in the do-or-die series finale. And while the Kings had the better of the play during the extra period leading up to the game-winning goal, the Hawks had chances as well. The kind of flukey, fluttering goal that happened to bounce off Nick Leddy and just over the shoulder of Corey Crawford could easily have happened at the other end.
What was the factor that pushed the Kings over the top?
It wasn't goaltending, or goal-scoring, although in the end of course the visitors did manage that one final, one-goal margin. I think the most surprising thing about this series was the Hawks' inability to hold leads. Hell, they practically set a record for that in last night's game alone, squandering 2-0, 3-2 and 4-3 leads.
This was the worst we've seen the Hawks defensive corps play over an entire series during the championship era (the first year of which was the first Stanley Cup season that ended in 2010, of course).
And fatigue had to be a factor. In other words, I blame the Olympics!
Three of the Hawks' four top defensemen didn't just play in the energy-sapping international tournament in Russia in the middle of the season; Duncan Keith (Canada), Niklas Hjalmarrson and Johnny Oduya (both Sweden) took that tournament to the limit, with Canada knocking off Sweden in the Olympic finale. A total of 10 Hawks participated over all.
The Kings only had six players participate in the Olympics and only one of their core defensemen made the finals. That would all-world Drew Doughty, who starred on the blue line for Canada. Defenseman Slava Voynov also participated but his Russian team bowed out early (the quarterfinals).
The Hawk defense simply wasn't its usual oppressive self in the playoffs and especially against the Kings. I actually support NHL players competing in the Olympics if they want to - the hockey tournament in Sochi was seriously entertaining after all.
But there was a price to be paid for participating in an intense tournament in the middle of the season while most of the league was taking a couple weeks off, and the Hawks finally paid it. They were actually lucky they didn't have a problem with more injuries suffered by Olympic participants - at least that we know about. One of the elements of a hockey season post-mortem is finding out what injuries the players didn't officially report during their runs through the post-season.
The bottom line is, it was amazing the Hawks made it as far as they did. Crawford didn't have a great series against the Kings (he was also tremendously unlucky, especially in last night's game as fluky goal after fluky goal just managed to cross the goal line). But he won the Wild series almost single-handedly with great performances in the final few games. And he was also a big difference-maker in the first round against the Blues. Quite simply, Crawford has proven he can back-stop a champ and he got better this season.
There is always a certain amount of roster turnover from year to year in sports, especially in a league with a rock-solid salary cap. Next year's Hawks will have at least somewhat of a different look.
But let me cast my vote (and Stan Bowman, I know you're out there wondering exactly what your plan should be this offseason) for the team making the fewest changes possible. I love this group's chances next year after a nice, relaxing off-season and playing in a regular season in which all the players will play the same number of games all the way through.
Jim "Coach" Coffman is our man on Mondays. He welcomes your comments.