After their last two seasons ended with heartbreaking losses in winner-take-all games, the Anaheim Ducks thought they were ready to get past Game 7.
Instead, the Chicago Blackhawks showed the Ducks just how far they still are from the Stanley Cup Final.
Jonathan Toews scored two goals in the opening minutes, Corey Crawford made 35 saves and Chicago won the Western Conference title with a 5-3 victory Saturday night.
After six games of tense hockey in an extraordinary series, Game 7 was an incongruous rout. Toews was responsible for it, burnishing his reputation for big-game brilliance with a rebound goal just 2:23 in and another power-play score before 12 minutes elapsed.
"We took another step this year, going a round farther, but ultimately that Game 7 we've got to be able to finish," Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf said. "They played better than us tonight. I'm not telling you they are a better team than us. We didn't do enough to win."
Frederik Andersen gave up three goals on Chicago's first seven shots, and the Ducks eventually fell behind 4-0 before Ryan Kesler scored late in the second period. Corey Perry and Matt Beleskey added late goals, but Anaheim lost a Game 7 at home for the third straight season — an NHL record.
The Ducks have blown a 3-2 series lead for three straight years, compounding the heartbreak for a talented team that hasn't developed the postseason poise possessed by Chicago and other champions.
"Last year was a tough loss, (and) this year was even worse," Ducks forward Patrick Maroon said. "We're one game away. We had them on the ropes. We're going up 3-2 in their barn. You saw what happened there. Then we're looking better because we have home-ice advantage and can play in front of our fans, and ... I don't know. I have no words."
The collapse came abruptly for Anaheim, which went a record-tying 14 games into the postseason without a regulation defeat until losing the last two games by a combined 10-5. The Ducks finished one game shy of their first Stanley Cup Final since 2007.
Anaheim's postgame salute to the fans was as funereal as its dressing room moments later while the players stewed in the knowledge of an opportunity wasted.
"We worked all season to have Game 7 in our building, and it's a pretty empty feeling right now," defenseman Cam Fowler said. "I feel like we let the fans down and let the people around us down. It's not a fun feeling right now. That's the best I can explain."
Brandon Saad, Marian Hossa and Brent Seabrook also scored for the Blackhawks, who will play for their third NHL championship in six seasons when they face the Tampa Bay Lightning beginning Wednesday night in Florida.
Patrick Kane had three assists for Chicago, which won three of the series' final four games to seize another Western Conference title — although the Blackhawks refused to touch the Campbell Bowl during an awkward postgame ceremony punctuated by fans throwing orange towels on the ice.
"There was no easy games," Toews said. "There was nothing given to us. (At) no moments in this series were there any lulls, where we felt Anaheim maybe didn't play their best hockey and we got away with it. We felt like we had to earn everything against that team. That was an incredible test for both teams."
The Blackhawks have defied conventional NHL parity to reach three Stanley Cup Finals and five conference finals in a seven-year stretch under coach Joel Quenneville. That's because their stars are unmatched: From Toews and Kane to Seabrook and Duncan Keith, nobody knows how to win like Chicago's big names.
The Blackhawks bounced back this season after their Game 7 loss to the Kings in last spring's conference finals. Chicago outlasted Nashville and swept Minnesota this spring before outlasting Anaheim in the franchises' first playoff meeting.
Keith had two assists while completing the series with a jaw-dropping 230 minutes, 48 seconds of ice time for a team largely relying on four defensemen.
Three days after Chicago staved off elimination with a 5-2 win at home, Toews somehow managed to top his last appearance at Honda Center. He tied Game 5 on Monday with two electrifying goals in the final minutes before Anaheim won in overtime.
Captain Serious showed how much he thought of Game 7 pressure when he scored just 2:23 in. Niklas Hjalmarsson's long shot rebounded straight to Toews, who scored his fourth goal of the series when the Ducks inexplicably failed to mark him.
Anaheim immediately showed tension in its game, perhaps remembering its three-goal first period deficit in a Game 7 loss to the Los Angeles Kings last spring. After Jakob Silfverberg took a hooking penalty midway through the period, Toews capitalized with a high shot through traffic, getting it through Saad's screen in front.
NOTES: Getzlaf and Francois Beauchemin both played in their 97th postseason game with the Ducks, surpassing Teemu Selanne's franchise record. ... Tomas Fleischmann returned to Anaheim's lineup, and Emerson Etem was scratched. ... Chicago improved to 32-0 this season when leading after two periods.