The champions went out Tuesday night, and but they went out like champions.
There's no getting around the fact that the Chicago Blackhawks' title defense was a disappointment, from their Cup hangover to backing into the playoffs to going down 3-0 to the Vancouver Canucks in the conference quarterfinals. The roster was dotted with underachievers and lineup holes. The elation of 2010 became the frustration of 2011.
But that all became secondary to their near-miracle in Game 7, in which they were one goal away from becoming the fourth team ever to rally from 3-0 hole. They showed the swagger and talent that made them champions; you could hear it in Jonathan Toews's(notes) voice after the 2-1 overtime loss:
"We've had some good series in the past, but I have to say that's been the best one," he said. "We never gave up. You have to feel like it's meant to be when you get to that point. You have to think it's going to go your way and when it doesn't … I can't believe what just happened. There was no doubt in my mind we were going to win this game coming into it."
A few thoughts on the end of the Blackhawks' season:
It Wasn't About Roberto. The Blackhawks failed to create chaos in front of Roberto Luongo(notes) for one simple reason: The Canucks were protecting their keeper like the Tri-Lambs protected the Nerds from the jocks. It's hard to set screens and get in his face when Vancouver is collapsing five in the zone.
Was Luongo good? Sure, but outside of a couple saves in the third period his performance was workmanlike and occasionally worrisome; which, considering his broken psyche entering the game, naturally garnered overpraise. It was the goaltending equivalent of seeing a stroke victim slowly regain his motor skills.
Why the Blackhawks lost Game 7: Because the Canucks got back to the style they played from Games 1-3. Forechecking well to prevent breakout passes. Clearing their own zone quickly. Protecting Luongo. Some of these things fell by the wayside when the Blackhawks came charging in the third, but for the most part they didn't give Chicago the same breathing room they had in the last three losses. You could see where the seams were breaking in previous games; the Canucks stitched them up in Seven.
We feel good for Luongo -- honestly, we have no idea how the guy could continue playing hockey if Toews Parise'd him in the third and then he lost at home, in overtime, in a cruel variation of the gold medal game -- but it was his team that secured the win for him.
The Bickell Factor. Losing Bryan Bickell(notes) to wrist surgery turned out to be a significant loss, even if it wasn't a surprise. Dave Bolland(notes), Michael Frolik(notes) and Troy Brouwer(notes) were off the score sheet in Game 7, and the Bolland line wasn't as effective on the other end of the ice either, considering how the Canucks crashed the zone for two periods. Bickell had a point in four straight playoff games, and his speed was a factor for the Canucks' defense. It doesn't have to be a superstar to be a significant loss, and this absence hurt the Blackhawks.
If They Want Him, They've Found Their Goaltender. Had Corey Crawford(notes) won that game, it would have stood up as one of the greatest goaltending performances of the season, regular or post-. He was the best player on the ice for Chicago and the only reason Vancouver wasn't in celebration mode by the third period. His sequence against Higgins, Burrows and Kesler with 5:04 left in the game was eye-popping:
He's a restricted free agent this summer, and the team and Crawford agreed to defer contract talks until after the season. He should cash in; and, hopefully, doesn't get Niemi'd out the door if Chicago doesn't like his terms.
The Summer Ahead. In the postmortem of this series, we'll likely hear about nagging injuries (gotta believe Duncan Keith's(notes) on that list, based on the optics of his game) and plans for the future. The Blackhawks have 11 free agents, but none from their core; the biggest name outside of Crawford is Troy Brouwer, who's restricted.
According to Capgeek, they have $8,385,331 in projected cap space, which again is not much to fill out a roster that needs to return in 2011-12 with better quality depth. It's a top-heavy roster salary-wise; will Stan Bowman do something about that?
Finally, How Exactly Were The Blackhawks Supposed To Win When Vancouver Was Blessed By a Double Rainbow?
Double rainbow, oh my God, double rainbow. It's so bright, so vivid.