Sports are so generous. Not only do we get the plays and games that make our blood rush and stomachs churn, we can also use our brain to ponder how legacies and legends would be impacted if a bounce, coach’s decision or a referee’s call had gone the other way. That’s how the “What If?” game works.
For the next little while, Sportsnet.ca is going to run an ongoing “What If?” feature, crafting alternative histories stemming from events big and small. To get us started, we gazed back at one of the signature Stanley Cup Playoffs games of the past decade and asked: What if the Chicago Blackhawks won Game 7 of the 2014 Western Conference Final in overtime, not the Los Angeles Kings?
What actually happened
By 2014, the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks were the unquestioned co-heavyweight champions of the Western Conference. The Hawks had hung banners in 2010 and 2013, while the Kings won the 2012 title and lost to Chicago in the 2013 West Final. Twelve months later, it was re-match time.
The Kings — who actually fell behind 3-0 in their first-round series to San Jose and 3-2 in Round 2 versus Anaheim — jumped out to a 3-1 series advantage, before Chicago won Games 5 and 6 to force a winner-take-all contest in the Windy City. The home team led Game 7 by a 2-0 count before the proceedings were nine minutes old; L.A. stormed back to tie it 2-2 with 2:38 to go in the first; Chicago reclaimed the lead 12 seconds later and Patrick Sharp scored his second of the contest with 1:35 remaining in the second to give Chicago a 4-3 advantage heading into the final period.
The Kings refused to fold, though, and Marian Gaborik squared the affair with 7:17 to go before Alec Martinez won it for L.A. with a re-directed shot off of Nick Leddy 5:47 into overtime.
In short, it was awesome.
What could have happened
Patrick Sharp has a game for the ages and gets the hatty in OT? Patrick Kane or Jonathan Toews — both beasts in that post-season — bag one? Heck, Brandon Saad had a partial breakaway he couldn’t convert just moments before Martinez’s floater found the back of the net. There’s any number of ways Chicago could have punched its ticket to the final.
Possible hockey history re-writes
• After downing Chicago, the Kings won their second Cup in three seasons by besting the New York Rangers in five games. Let’s assume the Hawks would have beaten the Rangers, too. For the moment, we’ll leave the rest of hockey history unchanged and note that Chicago would ultimately be in possession of three straight titles from 2013 through 2015 and four Cups in a six-season stretch beginning with the 2010 triumph.
That makes the Hawks an unassailable, all-time dynasty. As it stands, they sometimes get the asterisks treatment in terms of a dynasty label because they never won back-to-backs like the 2016 and ’17 Pittsburgh Penguins. The Kings, meanwhile, are a one-off champion and become more of a blip on history’s radar. Maybe we think of them more like their California cousins in Anaheim, where the Ducks won the 2007 title, but could never summit the mountain again despite having awesome teams.
• Definitives are rare in the realm of ‘What If,’ but former Kings GM Dean Lombardi has publicly acknowledged the afterglow of winning two titles impacted his judgement when he decided not to use a compliance buyout — each team got one to be used within the first two summers after the 2012-13 owners’ lockout — on Mike Richards. Had L.A. lost Game 7 in 2014, Lombardi surely would have bought out the remaining six years on Richards’ pact with no salary cap implications for Los Angeles. Instead, Richards remained with the team until he was arrested in the summer of 2015 for possession of a controlled substance (Oxycodone).
Richards and the Kings wound up reaching a contract-termination agreement that fall and the charges were eventually stayed. The upshot: L.A. was dinged with a five-year cap recapture penalty that expires this season and Richards will remain on the books for cap hits that go from $900,000 next season and dwindle to $400,000 when he finally comes off in 2031-32.
• Let’s bring some other teams into this, because the legacy of some megastars could also have been severely altered. While Chicago would have been favoured to beat the somewhat-Cinderella Rangers, let’s not sleep on that Blueshirts squad. New York lost in five games to L.A., but three of those contests required overtime. Those Kings outfits enjoyed a physical advantage over most clubs, including the Hawks and Rangers. New York and Chicago were actually built in fairly similar moulds, with rosters defined by speed over size. Maybe the Blackhawks would have been a better draw for the Rangers? Also, Henrik Lundqvist’s career save percentage to that point was .934 versus Chicago as opposed to .916 against Los Angeles. Could that have been the Cup year for ‘The King?’
• Steven Stamkos, like Lundqvist, is still in search of his ring. In 2015, Tampa Bay played six extremely tight Stanley Cup Final games — five settled by one goal, one decided by two — versus the Hawks before watching Toews and Co. lift the trophy. Let’s say Chicago did beat L.A. and New York in 2014; the Hawks would be a touch more tired and, perhaps, a little less hungry the following year. Would that have been the tiny opening Tampa needed to get the championship that’s proved so elusive?