Hello Game 7, my old friend.
You’ve come to haunt the Ducks again.
As I sat inside Honda Center watching the Anaheim Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks play in Game 7 of the Western Conference Final on Saturday night, there were moments early on in the game, particularly after the first period, with Chicago (more specifically, Jonathan Toews) up 2-0, where I felt like I was watching the same horror movie for the third time in three years.
But as the game went on, I decided that this series, and subsequent season-ending 5-3 loss, had a much different feel than the Game 7 losses of 2014 and 2013. Although the frustrating outcome was the same—the Ducks were again bounced from the playoffs by way of a Game 7 defeat in their own barn—I didn’t see the same scared, shell-shocked bunch that failed to show up to play against the Kings and the Red Wings.
There were spurts where the Ducks pushed hard, even in the first period. But it wasn’t sustained, and the second they let their guard down, the Blackhawks capitalized, to the surprise of exactly no one. Because that’s what elite teams do in Game 7 when a trip to the Stanley Cup Final is on the line.
There’s been plenty of analysis as to what happened in that final game, how the team’s leaders played “terrible” and there’s a lot of truth to that. Ducks’ Captain Ryan Getzlaf was clearly outplayed by Toews. Goaltender Frederik Andersen wasn’t at his best, and neither was the defensive play in front of him. The Ducks got behind early, and the team known for being the “comeback kids” all season had seemingly run out of magic.
After the game, Getzlaf stood in the dressing room and answered a boatload of questions, with a level of composure I’m certain I would not have in that same situation. His answer to one question in particular told me all I needed to know about how the Ducks let this series get away from them.
The Captain was asked if he would agree that the Blackhawks were the better team.
He paused before he spoke, for what seemed like an eternity, while he carefully figured out his answer.
“No,” Getzlaf said, very emphatically. “I’m not telling you that they’re a better team than us. I’m telling you that they played better than us tonight. They played good enough to win.”
That’s it, right there.
The Blackhawks were not necessarily the “better team” in this series. The Ducks played right with them for the first part of this series, dominating them at times. A couple of bad bounces, a post and a crossbar…who knows how this could have gone through the first four games.
But Chicago became the better team as the series moved along, beginning in Game 5. Even though the Ducks won that game in overtime, I could sense as Toews and his troops rallied to tie the game in the last two minutes of regulation that the tide was shifting.
Up 3-2 in the series with a chance to close it out in Chicago in Game 6, Anaheim instead was handed its first regulation loss of the playoffs. So going into Game 7, my own gut feeling had me concerned with how the Ducks would respond to that situation. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe they could win. I absolutely did. But in a long playoff run, such as the one that is required to win the Stanley Cup, it is as much about how a team responds to the losses as it is about the wins.
The Blackhawks made the adjustments they needed to make. The Ducks did not.
When you are three rounds deep into this playoff chaos, you’re invested and the emotions are real. And when your team loses, no matter how it happens, the ending is jarring and abrupt. As I stood and watched defenseman Cam Fowler address the media, he did his best to keep it together.
“It’s something that’s hard to put into words,” Fowler said of his emotions. “I feel like you pour your heart and soul into this. I feel like we let the fans down and let the people around us down. We felt like we had a special thing going. It doesn’t feel like we deserve to be done yet.”
I’m determined not to let Saturday night’s loss erase what this team has accomplished this season. They were still playing on May 30. This series against Chicago was full of great hockey and thrilling moments. And in each of the last three years, the Ducks have inched closer to the big prize, having made it one round further than the previous year. This group has a confidence about them that I haven’t seen in some time. They believe they can win. But having it all end just one win away from playing for the Cup is a sobering reminder of how hard it is to get there in the first place.
“I gained an appreciation this year for making it to where we did, with how tough every series is,” said Head Coach Bruce Boudreau. “You hear about it on TV, but until you really see how many hurdles you have to go through, it’s really difficult.”
It will be interesting to see what changes lie ahead. I don’t think they need to be drastic. The window is still wide open for this young, skilled group. Their youth may have been too much this season, especially on defense, but their depth will allow them to address that.
In order to be considered an elite team, the Ducks will need to beat an elite team when it matters most, in a seven-game series in the playoffs. That’s what is missing. The experience from the last three seasons will go a long way in getting them there.
Take heart, Ducks fans. This team is close.
They were five wins away. And there is no shame in that.