ST. LOUIS – The Blackhawks’ locker room was just about empty. The few players who were in the room following the team’s Game 7 loss were understandably stunned.
After three seasons of playing to at least the Western Conference finals – with two of those seasons ending with Stanley Cups – the Blackhawks were done earlier than they expected.
As Patrick Kane said, “It just doesn’t really feel right.”
Nevertheless, that’s the reality for the Blackhawks, who were eliminated 3-2 by Central Division foe St. Louis Monday night. A season filled with high expectations and potential was finished in April.
“That’s the division we’re in, the conference we’re in, the best in the game. You have to win four series against tough teams and tough opponents and we had the toughest matchup you could have faced in the first round,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “That’s the draw and we didn’t get it done.”
Considering the Blackhawks’ success in recent years, this abrupt exit comes as a disappointment. But was it a complete surprise? As good as the Blackhawks’ regular-season record was, there were certain trends forming all season that made one wonder if they could repeat.
Patrick Kane was stellar throughout, earning an Art Ross Trophy for the most productive regular season of his career. Corey Crawford was too, and he led the league with his seven shutouts. Artemi Panarin was exactly what the Blackhawks hoped he would be: A boost to the offense who found an immediate connection with Kane.
But there were also inconsistencies. The Blackhawks’ usual four-line rotation was difficult to attain. Their defensive depth was depleted. The players they acquired at the trade deadline (Andrew Ladd, Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann) didn’t bring what the Blackhawks were hoping they would (in Weise’s case, he didn’t get his real opportunity until late in the first round).
Couple all of that with the Blackhawks facing an improved Blues team, and here we are.
If you’re a hockey fan, the Blackhawks-Blues series supplied all you could have hoped for: Great goaltending, tremendous overall play, fantastic finishes and six of seven games being decided by one goal. I could go back on my soapbox of why this format is cheating us – this series was Western Conference final-worthy, and it’s a damn shame one team had to be eliminated. But that’s another story.
If you’re a Blackhawks fan, you’re feeling a little hollow today. Even though this season’s Blackhawks weren’t as deep as the 2013 and 2014-15 squads, you get used to seeing them pull games – even series – out of the fire. This season, it wasn’t meant to be.
The Blackhawks will deal with salary cap fun again this offseason. They’ll pay Panarin his performance bonuses; those bonuses will constrict the cap even more and will likely cost the Blackhawks another key player – possibly Andrew Shaw. They’ll once again look to Rockford to fill voids and they’ll look for their core to lead them again in 2016-17.
The end came a lot sooner than the Blackhawks expected. As Kane said, it doesn’t feel right. The Blackhawks have found a lot of success lately with the right combination of core and supporting cast. This season, it just didn’t work.
“It’s obviously weird,” Jonathan Toews said. “At the end of the day, I think a lot of people recognize this as two teams with the potential to go far and obviously someone had to go home. It’s unfortunate that we didn’t give ourselves a chance to go deep again.”