For their title hopes to remain alive, all the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks have to do is somehow contain the highest-scoring offense of these 2014 playoffs and win three straight games against the Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick, the 2012 Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP.
It wasn’t meant to.
The Blackhawks, who have won the Cup twice in four seasons, might yet mount an odds-defying comeback, but in reality they most likely will succumb to a fresher opponent. In Stanley Cup Playoff history, 229 teams have trailed 3-1 in a best-of-7 series and only 20 or (8.7 percent) wound up winning.
As impressive as the Blackhawks were in rallying from an 0-2 deficit in the first round against St. Louis and in dispatching the Minnesota Wild, the Central Division’s fourth-place team, in six games in the second round, they now have the look of a team that is running out of gas.
Prior to Game 4 of their series on Monday – which the Blackhawks lost 5-2 – Chicago coach Joel Quenneville denied that fatigue was becoming a factor. It’s becoming palpable to observers.
"None, no, not at all," Quenneville said, according to a transcript provided by the league. "No, I think something like that we would feel it. You would see it. I’m not giving in to that one."
He might not agree, but his team eventually could give in to the toll of all of the games they have played within the past 17 months. In the 2013 calendar year, they started off with an exhausting slate of 48 games in 99 days, as every team did. Then they played 23 playoff games. Boston, the team Chicago defeated last year in the Cup Final, played 22. Because of the lockout last season, the Blackhawks did not win the Cup until June 24. When they won it three years earlier, they closed out Philadelphia on June 9.
Those two extra weeks of rest matter. Especially because this past season was an Olympic year with a compacted schedule. The Olympics also meant a much heavier burden for elite players, starting in late August when players were invited to their respective countries’ Olympic camps. No rest for the weary.
Chicago was one of three NHL teams that sent 10 players to the Olympics. The other two, St. Louis and Detroit, did not make it past the first round. By comparison, the other three teams in the conference finals had fewer Olympians: Montreal had nine (including reserve goalie Peter Budaj), the New York Rangers and the Kings each had seven.
Seven of the Blackhawks’ players — Duncan Keith, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Johnny Oduya, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Marcus Kruger and Patrick Kane — competed for a medal, meaning they played in the maximum number of games. Those are the players whom the Blackhawks rely on the most heavily and they log big minutes come postseason. Compare that to the Kings, who had three of their seven Olympians — Slava Voynov, Anze Kopitar and Marian Gaborik, the latter two ranking first and third among all playoff scorers — eliminated early, back in the United States and getting a bit more rest for the grueling stretch.
And Olympic years definitely have an impact on the league’s elite teams. A study published in The International Journal of Sport Finance found that for every player an NHL team had participating in the Olympics between 1998 and 2010, it negatively impacted its goal differential by .088 per game. With 10 players for Chicago, that’s almost a goal per game and it showed late in the season.
In the Blackhawks’ final 11 games, as they were competing for a higher seed and home ice, they won three times in regulation, lost six in regulation and won once each in shootout and in overtime. During that span, they lost four of five at one point and were outscored by 14-4 in those four losses, two of which came against non-playoff teams, Nashville and Ottawa. As a result, Chicago hardly entered the playoffs with high expectations.
In some ways, the Blackhawks might have gotten as far as they did because they avoided a second-round matchup with Central Division champion Colorado, which defeated the Blackhawks three times in their final three meetings (none by shootout). The young and inexperienced Avalanche lost in the first round in seven games to the more veteran Wild.
Now, it seems, the Blackhawks’ luck is running out at the same time as their energy is. Prior to Game 4, Quenneville noted that the tide of the series turned with bad third periods in Games 2 and 3 that resulted in Kings’ wins.
"Disappointed (in the) two periods that ended the last two games," he said.
One factor that could lead to poor play in the third period is fatigue. In Game 4, third-period fatigue was a nonfactor, as Chicago fell down by 4-0 in the second and lost 5-2.
With their sublime talent and championship pedigree, the Blackhawks might be able to summon the energy for a comeback. But at this point they look as if they will finally succumb to the taxing demands of the last year and a half.