No one would dare deny the perfection of this series. Sure, it didn't go seven, but let's not get greedy --we had three games go to overtime, and one more, Game 6 on Monday night, which might as well have. There were shootouts (in the lots-of-goals sense, not in the skills-competitions-that-end-regular-season-games sense, thankfully), and there were low-scoring affairs.
There were beards, big hits and blood, but there was also ballet -- think of Tyler Seguin's seamless reception, corralling, and saucering of the puck on Boston's first goal. The play between the Bruins and Blackhawks managed to justify every "Gee, aren't the hockey playoffs amazing" piece that sprung forth from the keyboard of a national sports columnist.
This was the Platonic ideal of a Final; by comparison, Kings-Devils was nothing more than a projection of shadows on the wall of a cave. I am certain I speak for all hockey fans (even Bruins fans, so many of whom lingered and applauded last night as the Blackhawks were presented with the Stanley Cup) when I say: We are all so glad to have experienced this series, because it was so great.
But Game 6's roller coaster was also maddening. Deeply, deeply maddening, so maddening that one who traditionally spends more time thinking about hockey than he spends thinking about how best to clip his toenails might begin to think, "You know, I really ought to focus on my toenail-clipping technique." All of the third period's three goals -- the one that ought to have sent both teams to Game 7, the one that ought to have sent both teams to overtime, and the one that did in fact send both teams to the handshake line -- involved defensive-zone lapses, scorers left alone in front of the goalies by absent-minded forwards and too-aggressive defensemen. Is this really how the sport's preeminent contest should be decided?
On Milan Lucic's goal, the play began with a miscommunication -- goalie Corey Crawford and defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson both chased the puck to the trapezoid's right-hand boundary. But Lucic snuck through them and stole the puck. Hjalmarsson should have bumped him, since the officials would never call interference in such a scenario. And yet: It slipped off Lucic's stick. A reprieve? Duncan Keith, the reliable partner, seized the puck. But he threw it right to David Krejci, the Bruins' top scorer, who had cycled his way below the goal line. Still, though, Chicago was in a safe spot. Four Blackhawks separated the Bruins' center from his wingers. And then Krejci did what anyone would do: He flung the puck toward the front. Rather inexplicably, both defensemen converged on him, and pinned themselves below the goal line. The puck ricocheted off Nathan Horton right to Lucic. And somehow -- again, inexplicably -- all 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds of Lucic stood alone, untouched, on the doorstep, able to whack the puck past Crawford. Chicago's forwards stood above him, waiting for a breakout that never came.
But six and a half minutes of game time later, the Bruins made a similar mistake, when both teams had essentially the same personnel on the ice. It wasn't quite so bad. Both teams were trying to win a puck on the right-hand boards in Boston's zone. Chicago had its extra attacker on the ice, so Boston was at a natural deficit when trying to win the battle. Boston had good reason to heavily pursue the puck, too: If the Bruins won it cleanly, the game would be 15 seconds closer to ending. But the Bruins' right wing, Nathan Horton (who is generally quite responsible on defense), made a big mistake. Wingers are generally supposed to cover defensemen when in their defensive zones. That might change with a sixth skater on the ice -- perhaps Horton's obligation becomes whichever skater happens to be standing where the defenseman usually stands. So when Keith, Chicago's left defenseman, charged past Horton after the puck on the boards, well, perhaps Horton earned a pass. But then, while Horton's head was turned, both Michal Handzus and Bryan Bickell sprinted for the net. He didn't react. At that point, all the Blackhawks for whom he could conceivably have been responsible had made their way to the net. He was still hanging around the point, in no shape to do anything. Naturally, Keith, Horton's man, won the puck. He fed it to Jonathan Toews, who had no trouble beating Zdeno Chara, who was responsible for three Blackhawks. Toews fed it to Bickell. Tie game.
The deciding goal was the simplest breakdown of all. Chicago got a shot from the point and a nasty deflection. It would have been a cruel way to lose, a very playoff hockey way to lose -- if Boston had lost that way. But they didn't. They lost instead when Johnny Boychuk's man, Dave Bolland, got inside position on the Bruins' defenseman. (Boychuk, we should note, was one of the Bruins' best defensemen in the series.) They lost when Boychuk opted not to knock Bolland, whom he outweighs by 40 pounds, to the ice. They lost when the deflected puck hit off the post instead of the end boards, making Bolland's body position terribly valuable. And they lost for real when Bolland tapped the puck into an empty net. It was bad luck, but it also wasn't.
I can already envision the proclamations. Last night's result restored order to a too-often-chaotic process: The Blackhawks had the best regular season in ages, 36-7-5, so shouldn't they win the Stanley Cup? It's more proper than when an eight seed takes it. Meanwhile, didn't the Bruins deserve to lose? The Maple Leafs were meant to extinguish them a month ago -- their luck needed to run out.
But look at the tape: The Blackhawks' regular-season dominance had nothing to do with last night's result, nor did hockey-god-administered justice. Instead, all three third-period goals came from little mistakes, obvious upon closer inspection, which will haunt the guilty losers for years but be forgotten by the culpable winners early on in the evening's boozy haze.
You train and practice so hard, and you lose like that. You bother thinking hockey makes any sense, and then that happens. How do general managers and coaches spend so much time tinkering with rosters and lines? How can fans worry about what their teams' bosses will do? The sport's apogee is nonsense. It's awful, thinking about it like that. But in the moment? It's perfect.