Without much prompting, coach Joel Quenneville allowed Thursday that “we’re better with some anger in our game.” Suffice it to say, the Blackhawks did not require the services of rink rage management specialists after Wednesday evening’s effort in their playoff opener against the Vancouver Canucks.
Still, the rather demure manner in which the visitors succumbed, 2-0, mightily uplifted hopes locally that the king is dead or at least dying, the throne soon shall be vacated and the Blackhawks are more likely to win a Nobel Peace Prize than a second consecutive Stanley Cup because they are but a shell of what they were last spring. Lacking new material, fans here even recycle the hymn about how the defending champions backed into the tournament and thus don’t even really belong.
Team historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. Verdi authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001.
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Well, now, that banality sounded hollow when concocted by Twitter bugs, nor has the passage of time afforded it much credibility. Granted, when the Blackhawks offered their sweaters to a gaggle of fans after dropping Sunday’s regular season finale at the United Center, those players might have feared they would not suit up again in company uniforms until September. A few guys probably deduced that their careers in Chicago were over, period. But Minnesota beat Dallas Sunday night, so the Blackhawks are in the Western Conference Quarterfinals. What are they supposed to do, apologize? If my father hadn’t met my mother 100 years ago, I wouldn’t be here, either. What am I supposed to…..nevermind, don’t answer that.
We regret spoiling a lively rant with facts, but the Blackhawks, for all their roster and mood changes, finished with 97 points—the tenth-highest total in franchise history. True, points are cheaper now than ever. Like the system or not, a defeat can count half as much as a victory. These are not the old days, when the Blackhawks won a Stanley Cup in 1934 with 51 points, another one in 1938 with 37(!) and a third in 1961 with 75. But this isn’t the NBA, either, where the No. 1 overall Bulls will commence their postseason against an Indiana team that was well-below .500 and an amazingly pedestrian 25 games south of Chicago in the Central Division.
That kind of mediocrity does not exist in the NHL, at least not in the playoffs. The Blackhawks were this close to finishing ninth and gone, agreed. They also were two points shy of 99, which is what the Anaheim Ducks secured for fourth seed and home-ice advantage. The Blackhawks didn’t reach that mark because they didn’t exploit their home-ice advantage over six months by losing 17 games, too many in a building that is always full, always friendly and always frenetic. But the Blackhawks don’t belong in the playoffs? Seriously? They won two more games than the Stars. Where’s the beef?
In 1991, before they moved to Dallas—where the Blackhawks once operated a farm team—the Stars were in Minnesota, and what a wrench they threw into Chicago’s would-be machine. The Blackhawks rolled to the Presidents’ Trophy for best overall record with 106 points. The North Stars wobbled home with 68, drew the Blackhawks in the first round, and lost two of the first three games. But then those Blackhawks, who did have anger-management issues, bombed and dropped three straight, scoring only two goals during their fainting spell. It was a huge upset, and coach Mike Keenan was hugely upset.
Only a couple years earlier, the Blackhawks had to huff and puff to secure a playoff berth. Troy Murray, currently the team’s radio analyst on 720 WGN, tallied in overtime of the last regular-season game and the Blackhawks tiptoed into fourth place of the Norris Division with 66 points while 14 games under .500. Lo and behold, they got all excited about the postseason and beat the Detroit Red Wings, then the St. Louis Blues, before bowing in six tough games to the Calgary Flames, who went on to win the Cup.
So, as if these Blackhawks didn’t know it, strange possibilities and permutations lurk, especially since this year’s array of playoff eligibles features more teams from California -- three -- than Canada, which sent two. Montreal’s Canadiens are holding up their end of the country, and the Canucks are being followed by no less than half of the Great White North, if not every province except Quebec. Les Habitants, with lots of money and lots of banners, are hockey’s version of the New York Yankees. But the Canucks are still waiting for their first Stanley Cup, and if it doesn’t happen this June, don’t bother calling or visiting this region. British Columbia will be closed until further notice for repairs.
The Blackhawks, meanwhile, say for public consumption that they feel less pressure about this matchup than their adversary. To stress that belief, they did not exude great energy Wednesday night when the Canucks built a quick two-goal advantage, established a physical motif, then rolled four lines while Quenneville reached for the stars as a solution. On Thursday, the regulars showed up to the Rogers Arena but did not skate. The Blackhawks need to work hard on game days, not off days.
“We don’t get too uptight about losing the first game in a series,” said Brian Campbell. “We’ve done it before. But we have to do a better job (Friday) night than we did last night at creating chances and converting them.”
The Canucks--as every bartender, cab driver and panhandler will remind you--amassed 117 points during their fabulous winter after being excused last May by the Blackhawks for a second consecutive postseason. Vancouver and the Canucks hate the Blackhawks, and Wednesday night was evidence of the prevailing mood. Do the Blackhawks, many of them so new, still hate the Canucks?
“That’s a great team,” praised Patrick Kane
, deftly skirting the topic. “They won the Presidents’ Trophy for a reason.”
Ask any of the 1991 Blackhawks about their Presidents’ Trophy, and your conversation will be brief. It’s been 20 years, and it still burns.