The Ducks stared at their playoff demons Saturday and blinked. Again.
So ended another promising season for the Ducks, who romped through the 82-game schedule but lacked the mental toughness to successfully navigate the minefield of the Stanley Cup playoffs to a happy conclusion.
Their 5-3 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals gave them an unenviable hat trick's worth of home Game 7 losses the last three seasons, after a first-round loss to Detroit in 2013 and a second-round loss to the Kings last season. It's also the third straight time they didn't close out a series after taking a 3-2 lead.
The Blackhawks are a very good team. They're pursuing their third championship in six seasons and their experience should give them an edge over the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Final, which begins Wednesday in Tampa. But no matter how good the Blackhawks are, the Ducks gave in to them too meekly in Game 6 in Chicago and again Saturday at home to think they can get further with this same group. Beating the up-and-coming Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames was commendable. Beating the pedigreed Blackhawks was beyond their grasp.
“There are no words,” left wing Patrick Maroon said in the somber locker room at Honda Center. “One game. We lose two. Especially the one at home. We have to come back another year.”
He took no consolation from knowing the Ducks have gone one round deeper each season. “You don't want progress. You want results,” he said. “You want to be there. We were so close. One game away in their barn, one game away in our barn….
“I know they're a good hockey team over there but we're a great hockey team too. We have better players in here than they do and I think at the end of the day we need to be better.”
They need someone blessed with the indomitable will of Chicago captain Jonathan Toews, who wouldn't be denied when the Ducks put defensive ace Ryan Kesler against him or when they assigned Ryan Getzlaf to stop him. They need to develop the mental strength of the Blackhawks, who absorbed dozens of hits game after game but bounced right back up to make game-deciding plays.
“There's always confidence in the group that someone is going to step up and we're going to find a way to make it a game, give ourselves a chance,” Toews said.
So much for the Ducks' idea that if they continued to hit the top four members of Chicago's defense corps those defenders would eventually be worn down. They weren't so worn down Saturday that they couldn't dominate at the start and, at the end, throw their arms in the air in glee and pose near — but not in contact with — the Clarence Campbell Bowl to celebrate their West championship.
“It was a really tough series. But at the same time, I think we're moving on for a reason, showing a lot of character, using our speed and skill,” said defenseman Duncan Keith, whose strength and excellence never seemed to waver. “I don't think anybody's tired anymore this time of year.”
Getzlaf said he sensed before the game that all would be well, certainly better than when the jittery Ducks were blown out by the Kings in their playoff matchup last season.
“I felt better. I felt like the room was better. More prepared to do what we needed to do,” he said. “And then it's a matter of going out and executing. We can't win the game from in here. We've got to go out and execute on the ice. And there's another team out there that's trying to do the same thing.”
Except the Blackhawks didn't just try to do it — they accomplished it. And each time the Ducks mounted a push-back, such as when they cut Chicago's lead to 4-2 past the midway point of the third period, the Ducks sabotaged themselves. Cam Fowler made one move too many on Marian Hossa in the offensive zone and turned the puck over; to stop a counterattack Fowler took a penalty and the Blackhawks scored their final goal, at 13:23 of the third period.
"It's miserable. It's an awful feeling and I just feel like me, personally, I let a lot of people down. I think as a team we let a lot of people down," an emotional Fowler said. "We felt like we had a special thing going, and for it to be over is a pretty surreal feeling. It doesn't feel like we deserve to be done yet but that's how it goes."
It felt all too familiar for the Ducks, falling short yet again.