In a final act of urgency, desperation and will, a series too compelling to end will reach its epic conclusion Sunday when the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks square off for one last round.
The two most dominant teams of their generation, three Stanley Cups and seven conference finals between them in the past five years, will meet at the United Center to prove, once and for all, who rules the West.
Ali and Frazier on ice, for Game 7.
When it’s over, the conference will declare its most worthy champion in a very long time.
“You know, it’s been amazing,” said Chicago coach Joel Quenneville, who can still find time, amid the fog of battle, to admire the beauty of this thing. “I mean, as good as it gets.”
Better. It’s between a pair of teams as deep in character as they are in experience and talent, pouring everything they have into every shift, knowing neither of them will ever accept defeat, but one of them must.
“We’re not ready for this journey to end here,” said Blackhawks winger Ben Smith, as he and his teammates took one last deep breath before facing the biggest obstacle between Chicago and another ring. “Finding a way to get it done is what you have to do at this time of year.”
Both teams are supremely confident in their ability to get it done. Just as both teams will look across the ice during warmups and realize just how hard it’s going to be.
There have been 16 goals in the past two games and the Kings and Hawks haven’t been more than one apart for the past 127 minutes. They played almost eight minutes without a whistle in the first overtime of Game 5. They’ve changed the lead seven times in the past seven periods.
“We’re going to have to be at our best … there’s no other way to put it,” said Duncan Keith, paying due respect to the Kings. “You have to give them credit. Just a couple of bounces here and there … it’s that close out there.”
The Blackhawks, having climbed off the canvas to win Game 5 in double overtime and Game 6 on a Patrick Kane goal in the waning minutes, would be comfortably in the driver’s seat right now, if they weren’t playing the Kings.
“We know they’re a resilient group,” said Kane. “They’ve won two Game 7s on the road in their first two series. It’s going to be a tough one. Right now, we’re happy we got the (Game 6) win, but it doesn’t mean anything because we haven’t won anything yet.
“We’ll get ready for the next one and we know they’ll bring their best for Game 7.”
Count on it. Los Angeles, the first team in NHL history play three Game 7s on the road, have shown an incredible will to survive in these playoffs, winning six elimination games so far. They’ve come too far to stop now.
“We’ve got to win, there’s no other option,” said captain Dustin Brown. “I think we’re going to have our best effort of the series next game. All of the guys are going to step up to the plate. Our leaders are going to lead the way. Everyone else is going to follow. We’re going to have our best effort.”
They are at their brilliant best when the noose is being slipped around their neck. But they are also well aware that it has never been Chicago behind the executioner’s mask.
“Those are different rounds, different teams, different buildings,” he said of those long-ago Game 7 triumphs in San Jose and Anaheim. “We understand that. We understand we’ve got to have our best game to win this series.”
And then some. Think it’s easy winning in the United Center at the best of times? Try Game 7 with a trip to the Cup final on the line, in noise so loud you can actually feel it.
Conversely, try fending off the desperate and hard-charging L.A. Kings when they’re planning a full-out assault on your building.
“We’re excited, but nothing’s done yet,” said Keith. “We understand that. We’re going to give it everything we have on Sunday.”
HAWKS’ BAR IS SET HIGH
For most teams, going three rounds deep in the playoffs and losing to a great team like L.A., would be a pretty good season.
In Chicago, it’s total failure.
When your bar is set as high as the banners in the United Center, anything less than a Stanley Cup championship is a bad year.
“I don’t think we look at it as a success if we don’t win,” defenceman Duncan Keith said of a season that doesn’t end with a parade.
“Obviously, you know, we’ve done a few things right to get to this point, but I don’t think anybody in our room’s satisfied with just getting to the Western Conference final.”
If they were, they probably wouldn’t be in the room very long.
What was it they used to say at the University of Miami, when their football program dominated the NCAA?
It’s a ’Canes thing.
Well, that’s what they say in Chicago when all the money is on the table and a player so unbelievably clutch it looks like something out of a movie script delivers another big game masterpiece.
It’s a Kane thing.
Down 3-1 heading into Game 4 of the Western Conference final?
Kane gets four assists, helping set up the winner in a 5-4 double overtime thriller.
Down 3-2 heading into Game 5 on the road?
Kane gets gets another three points, including the game winning goal late in the third period.
Overtime in the deciding second-round game against Minnesota?
Overtime to win a Stanley Cup?
“It’s unbelievable,” said Chicago captain Jonathan Toews, who could only shake his head in bewilderment after Kane delivered again late in Game 6.
“I looked at him, I think it was about a minute left, during a stoppage in play and I almost started laughing.
“It’s amazing what he can do in these big games, when our season is on the line and nobody seems to be able to do it. It’s pretty amazing.”
The really amazing part is that the Blackhawks aren’t even surprised by this stuff anymore. He makes the spectacular performances on the biggest stages seem routine.
“We get the privilege of playing with a guy like that every day and seeing the things he can do,” said Duncan Keith. “Not everybody’s going to dominate a game every single game. There’s a lot of hockey, a lot of good teams and a lot of good players, but you know that when it comes down to crunch time, him and Johnny, I don’t really know if there’s two other guys I’d want to have on my team.”
Kane, like all great players, can’t really explain what happens or why. The best way to put it is that he gets a lot of goals and assists in big games. Pretty basic stuff.
“I don’t know, you try to take it upon yourself to try and step up in big situations,” he said. “But we have a lot of guys that do that.
“I think with our team and the amount of great players that are on it, it seems like everyone has their time to step up and have the spotlight and be in that moment.
“There’s been numerous guys that have done it. When it’s your turn, it’s always fun to contribute.”