NEW YORK—It will not get any easier, only louder. As sure as it costs $12 to drive through the Lincoln Tunnel, peace and quiet shall be unavailable Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, where the Blackhawks continue this road trip that belongs in the Griswold family album.
Whether the perplexed visitors can somehow find a victory among the din depends on how one gauges the law of averages. The New York Rangers are on fire, the Blackhawks are cold as an embalmer’s heart. Normally you would accord the wayward guests from Chicago little chance. But nobody, not even old-timers who cling to the Curse of Muldoon, could have forseen the Blackhawks losing nine straight games, outside of intrasquad scrimmages.
Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. He authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001, was the featured contributor in "One Goal Achieved: The Inside Story of the 2010 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks," and has co-authored biographies on Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita.
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“This has to end soon, doesn’t it?” wondered Head Coach Joel Quenneville, somewhat prayerfully, after his luck-of-the-Irish, clover-adorned necktie failed to brake the free fall in Nashville. The Blackhawks played well enough to win Tuesday night, but also did just enough to succumb 3-2. Since an overtime defeat in Vancouver, their journey through time zones and international borders has been pointless. If it weren’t true, it would feel unimaginable.
And now, having arrived at the Big Apple in the wee hours, the Blackhawks find New York even nuttier than usual. One needn’t look far for souvenirs from the recent Super Bowl conquest by the Giants. Hats and shirts for sale everywhere. If you missed the back page of either the Daily News or Post on Wednesday, the front page deals with the same story—another bit of last-second heroics by Jeremy Lin, the sudden sensation with the New York Knicks. You think the Blackhawks’ funk came out of nowhere? Lin, cut by two teams, was sleeping on his brother’s couch when he got the call to resurrect pro basketball in this city.
Yes, strange things are happening in sports, and if that’s a hidden message for the Blackhawks to take heart, so be it. Again, only across the street from their luxury hotel, there is a store window where football gear dominates, as if to underscore the vagaries of this business. A week before Christmas, the Giants lost for a second time to the nondescript Washington Redskins, 23-10. Defeat came at home, so the Giants were booed. They already had endured a four-game losing streak, which equated to one-fourth of the regular season schedule. They were 7-7. Experts blasted coach Tom Coughlin for his inability to motivate and scolded quarterback Eli Manning for his inconsistency. After the Giants missed the playoffs, there would be a massive overhaul.
The Giants never lost another game. Yet, their championship did not compare with the one that came before, won by the St. Louis Cardinals. On August 25, they were 10 ½ games out of a wild card berth. With 21 games remaining, they were 8 ½ behind. With five games to play, they were three out. They faced four elimination games, won them all, and secured a World Series title that even manager Tony LaRussa characterized as “unbelievable.”
Only a few weeks ago, a lot of smart people around the National Hockey League viewed a Blackhawks vs. Rangers matchup for the Stanley Cup Final as a distinct possibility. Now, it might seem like a stretch, unless you believe that athletic feats bordering on the occult tend to come in threes. St. Louis Cardinals, New York Giants, Chicago…
Whoa. Not so fast. First, there is Thursday night to navigate. The Rangers went into Boston Tuesday night and chloroformed the defending Cup champion Bruins 3-0 for their fourth straight victory. They have lost just one of their last 10, have opened up a nine-point lead in the Eastern Conference and are reportedly in discussions with the Columbus Blue Jackets about acquiring Rick Nash, a star power forward. The Knicks are the fad now in New York, but the Rangers are clearly the team better built for May and June, with or without Nash. Did we mention that their goalie, Henrik Lundqvist, has five shutouts in his last 19 starts?
Madison Square Garden is hailed as the most famous indoor arena in sports, and the Blackhawks have a few shares of that stock. You don’t have to be too ancient to remember the 1971 Semifinal, which Bobby Hull calls “one of the greatest series ever…and it wasn’t even for the Cup.”
The Blackhawks lost the opener in overtime in the Stadium, fell behind 2-1 in the best-of-seven series, then won two in a row. The series victory included a dramatic win in Game 5, when Hull beat Ed Giacomin, a Hall of Fame goalie he terrorized, off a faceoff in overtime.
Game 6 was an instant classic before instant classics were branded. At the Garden, the Blackhawks appeared poised to advance. Stan Mikita still rues the flurry on which both he and Bill White hit a goal post, seconds apart. The game went into a third overtime period, and Pete Stemkowski won it for the Rangers, 3-2. Three nights later, the Blackhawks prevailed 4-2 in Game 7, and it was on to the finals against the Montreal Canadiens.
In 1994, after 54 years without, the Rangers won another Stanley Cup. Their roster was liberally sprinkled with former Blackhawks: coach Mike Keenan, Steve Larmer, Greg Gilbert, Mike Hudson, Brian Noonan and Ed Olczyk, now the all-world TV analyst. “I was Keenan’s whipping boy,” recalls Edzo. Another ex-Hawk on the New Yorkers was Stephane Matteau, acquired in a late-season deal for Tony Amonte.
Matteau would score one of the most significant goals in Ranger annals. At the Garden in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final against the New Jersey Devils, Matteau beat goalie Martin Brodeur on a wraparound at 4:24 of the second overtime. New York then defeated Vancouver in a seven-game Final. The Rangers appear ready for another run under General Manager Glen Sather, the brains behind the Edmonton Oilers dynasty that haunted the Blackhawks back in the day.
What’s bedeviling the Blackhawks now is more curable. They could use a Lin, but they’ll settle for a win.