If a sporting event consumes four hours, can it then be properly categorized as an instant classic?
Pose that brain teaser to the 22,237 who inhabited the United Center on Saturday night, and the answer would be affirmative and absolute. Years from now, in fact, more than 22,237 will say they were there, and they might be telling the truth because this edition of thrill theater went so long that maintenance crews were arriving for their lobster shift to sanitize the building -- no easy task when it’s full of people screaming.
Finally, in a game as hairy as the densely bearded athletes providing such end-to-end royal entertainment, Patrick Kane completed his hat trick at 11:40 of the second up-tempo, penalty-free overtime to bring the Blackhawks a 4-3 triumph over the Los Angeles Kings and a berth in the Stanley Cup Final.
Instead of the dreaded all-expenses paid trip to California on a charter flight with five-star accommodations, the Blackhawks shall sleep Sunday and prepare for Wednesday’s Game 1 here against the Boston Bruins. It will mark the first final between two Original Six franchises since 1979, when Scotty Bowman’s dynastic Montreal Canadiens claimed a fourth consecutive championship by dispatching the New York Rangers, 4 games to 1.
Bowman, now the Senior Advisor/Hockey Operations for the Blackhawks, was in the home locker room as midnight approached. He spoke in a normal voice and could be heard, because only a hum of excitement mixed with relief provided the sound track. Certainly, the Blackhawks unwound fully when Kane took Jonathan Toews’ pass on the tape with only Rod Scuderi back to help goalie Jonathan Quick. Kane, who had endured a quiet series until joining his captain’s line a couple nights ago, fired. A Philadelphia story? Not. The target had been reached for all to see.
When the netting behind Quick bulged, the celebration began, but it was wilder and longer outside the glass than within. The Blackhawks, as exhausted as the dethroned former champions, put on new white hats to confirm their Clarence Campbell Conference crown. But when the Clarence Campbell Bowl was ferreted onto the rink, the Blackhawks posed for a picture without touching. They fully realize that, in order to secure a Stanley Cup, they have to first acquire preliminary hardware. But they don’t have to fall in love with second prize. Ever heard of anybody drinking bubbly out of the Clarence Campbell Bowl?
The Blackhawks, from one Saturday to the next, tagged the Kings with as many defeats, four, as they incurred over two months last postseason en route to their first title. This Western Conference final ended in five sets, faster than expected, but the Kings were far from in a compliant mood Saturday. Before registering a shot, they were down 2-0 because Jonathan Quick flat missed a drive by Duncan Keith, then went down in a scrum while Kane roofed his first at 5:59 of the opening period.
You’ve got to hand it to the Kings, and some would contend that the Blackhawks almost did. But the incumbents’ survival instinct percolated as time passed. The Kings manufactured a shorthander by Dwight King, a 2-2 tie on Anze Kopitar’s power-play tally midway in the third and then, after Bryan Bickell fed Kane for the apparent winner with only 3:52 left in regulation, the visitors crashed a party in progress.
The Blackhawks were up, 3-2, not a soul was sitting down and it’s not like the hometown heroes stopped skating. They were zigging and zagging around so promiscuously in the preferred half of the rink that Quick could not exit for the bench until a whistle occurred with 14.4 seconds remaining. Darryl Sutter called his time out, set up his hail mary offense, and just like that after a faceoff to the left of Corey Crawford, kaboom. Mike Richards, back in the lineup, rerouted a shot past the Blackhawks’ goalie at 19:50. Score, 3-3.
“We talked about our Game 7 in overtime against Detroit and kept our composure in the room,” related Andrew Shaw, who authored a half dozen hits during the marathon, a couple of which were jarring. Crawford, solid again, thought he might have lost 8 to ten pounds during the fray. Shaw can’t afford to lose 8 or ten ounces, not that he cares. He is genetically and perpetually fearless.
"I expected more of myself,” concluded Kane, who turned his series around and recorded the first Blackhawks playoff hat trick since Toews at Vancouver in 2010, a very good year. The Kings behind Quick were thought to be a heavyweight threat, but it was Chicago’s quickness that swayed the tournament. Come Monday, the Blackhawks probably will hear once more that the next team, Boston, is heftier than they are. We shall see.
The Kings were tough to shake, and then came the handshakes. If you watched Saturday night and didn’t know before, you know it now. Stanley Cup playoffs, priceless.