When the Blackhawks finished their work a year ago, they left during the wee hours of a Philadelphia morning in June, smelling of celebratory liquids and with a Stanley Cup as a passenger on the bus to the airport.
But Tuesday night, when the driver closed the door and was instructed to kill the radio, the former champions were in a bubble of silence while surrounded by sounds of victory. Horns honked, people ran through the streets, pizza joints and bars were hopping.
The Canucks had won Game 7 of this theatrical Western Conference Quarterfinal, 2-1, on Alex Burrows’ unassisted goal 5:22 into overtime. Rogers Arena, alternately loud and tense during three hours of typically gripping playoff hockey, exploded in joy and relief, not necessarily in that order. Visceral rivals lined up to shake hands, the Canucks hugged each other, the Blackhawks adjourned to their quarters, so close to perpetrating a colossal comeback in a best-of-seven series and also in a taut rubber match that captain Jonathan Toews tied on a shorthanded score—his first of the tournament—with merely 1:56 left in regulation.
As Toews mused later, there was no way he thought he and his Blackhawks would lose after that shocker. He had a feeling, after they won three straight times to square the series, after they finally pulled even in a Game 7 they had trailed since Burrows tallied in the third minute, after rookie masked man Corey Crawford did everything possible during a virtuoso performance to help the Blackhawks steal an historic conquest—including a stop on Burrows’ penalty shot early in the third period.
“I can’t believe what happened,” said Toews, the most valuable forward when Canada earned the 2010 Olympic gold medal on this very rink, an honor he shared with Roberto Luongo, the Vancouver netminder who didn’t play as though he had a piano on his back or toys in his attic. He joined his teammates in another solid, effective effort—let’s not forget how close to Canucks came to eliminating their Chicago tormentors in Game 6. Still, because Luongo’s counterpart was merely sensational, the Vancouver margin was a razor thin 1-0 for virtually 55 minutes instead of 4-0 or 5-0.
Do the Blackhawks have a franchise goalkeeper in Crawford? So it would appear. And a year after losing half a roster to the hard salary cap, they should feel no shame in partaking of a terrific playoff series that was unpredictable, weird and memorable. These weren’t last year’s Blackhawks. What with injuries during the postseason, these really weren’t even this year’s Blackhawks.
Had Dave Bolland returned in Game 3, as had been anticipated, instead of Game 4, who knows? And still, after Burrows—that man again—held Duncan Keith 24 seconds into the overtime, Patrick Sharp fired on Luongo and almost….
But it’s quiet now on the bus as the Blackhawks head back to the hotel. They have lots of clothes waiting there, because they packed heavily, anticipating a possible fourth straight triumph Tuesday night, then a flight to San Jose for the next round. Instead, the charter flight, the final flight before summer, will head for Chicago Wednesday morning.
“Breakfast at 7, then bus to the airport,” said Tony Ommen, the yoeman senior director of team services as the bus arrived at the hotel. He had to speak up, because horns were honking everywhere. The Blackhawks recognized the noise. They heard it last year and as the captain was saying, looking over to Corey Crawford’s stall, the future is bright.
The bus was quiet, the mood was solemn, but yes, the future is bright.