The Stanley Cup shall be in the United Center, brought there by its guardians in white gloves. The Blackhawks, in their ideal exit strategy scenario, would like that silver trophy to leave the building for points unknown in their hands only.
Not since 1938 have the Blackhawks won the Cup at home, and Chicago’s boys of winter appear most eager to reward their passionate fan base with a climactic conclusion to a postseason that has tested bodies, souls and nerves. As Head Coach Joel Quenneville likes to say, that would be dreaming in color.
“Pretty exciting,” forecast goalie Corey Crawford after Saturday night’s Game 5 of the Final, a 2-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning that brought the Blackhawks to within perhaps 60 minutes of their third Cup in six years. Pretty exciting? He said it will be pretty exciting in the Madhouse on Madison? This series merits a big finish, whether it is Game 6 Monday night or back here at Amalie Arena Wednesday night.
The fifth installment of this frenzied Final was more of the same between two wonderful teams, although with some odd twists. The Blackhawks introduced themselves in a way that was reminiscent of their clinical clincher at Anaheim, scoring what was tantamount to an open net goal in the first period.
The Lightning, reeling from that shock and the absence of a very important forward, could have caved. But they too have character, so they sent their snakebit captain, Steven Stamkos, out to accumulate defenseman minutes, tied it in the second, and played a robust third period, mostly from behind because the Blackhawks are a cold, calculating lot. Patrick Kane, like Stamkos, is still waiting to break out, so once again the summary sheet contained names associated with Chicago’s deep depth.
Kris Versteeg, with a heap of giddy-up, burst in on goalie Ben Bishop, just nudged the puck toward him enough to elicit a reaction and a rebound. Voila. The gentleman Frenchman, Antoine Vermette, canned it for his third winner of this postseason and fourth goal overall. How’s that deadline deal with the Arizona Coyotes look now? More importantly, how’s the family? Vermette’s wife, Karen, is expecting a child on Wednesday, so add them to a growing list who will gladly settle for Monday night as the last of 23 playoff games.
“I love it... no greater feeling,” said Niklas Hjalmarsson, after 28-plus minutes and seven blocked shots. He referred not only to the magnitude of these matches, but the tightness of them. All five have been won by one goal, which is also the maximum separation at any juncture between the Blackhawks and Lightning. In 1968, four games of Montreal Canadiens vs. St. Louis Blues were all decided by one goal. But take it from Scotty Bowman. That tournament was contested on a far slower track.
“We were just trying to stay close to them,” said Bowman, the Blues’ coach then and now the Blackhawks’ senior advisor for hockey operations. “We were an expansion team. There was no way we could keep up with Montreal, so we just tried to check them as best we could. As it turned out, the Conn Smythe Trophy (most valuable player in the playoffs) went to Glenn Hall, our goalie. Even though we never won a game in the Final, he got us there.”
Bishop got Tampa Bay here and when healthy, one asset is ostensibly his ability to handle the puck. That’s what he was attempting as he sashayed toward the circle on his right. But he collided with Victor Hedman, a large teammate on defense, and Patrick Sharp bagged the easiest goal you’ll ever see with an opposing goalie still on the ice. It was a gimme putt at 6:11 of the first period and the shots were 11-2 Chicago. They wound up 32-29 Tampa Bay.
Only moments before that egregious Lightning gaffe, Corey Crawford had a similar adventure. Fetching the puck, Crawford sent it toward Nikita Kucherov, motoring toward the net. He never quite gained control of the puck, or his body. On the aborted attempt, Kucherov hit the pipe head on and departed for the locker room ¬–¬ a double whammy for Tampa Bay. No goal, no more Kucherov. He is not the first opposing player to be excused with an injury this postseason. See: Shea Weber.
Watching Steve Yzerman pace before and during each of these playoff games is a sight to behold. In skates, he was the Hall of Fame leader of a Detroit Red Wings team that won three Stanley Cups in six seasons – exactly the achievement being lusted after by these Blackhawks, with one significant exception. When the Red Wings ruled between 1997 and 2002, there was no hard salary cap.
During that time, the Blackhawks had little identity. Their fans detested the Red Wings out of envy, but not until Rocky Wirtz came along as chairman and John McDonough as President/CEO did you hear of Stanley Cup ambitions. About then, ownership and management aligned themselves with the Detroit way.
Now it’s the Blackhawks who are being categorized as the example of all that is right. From the Wall Street Journal: “The Blackhawks are doing everything we could ask of them – as a business, as members of the community, but most of all as a hockey team, as a dynasty in full force.”
Hall of Famer Kevin Allen wrote a piece in USA Today under a headline you thought you might never see: “Lightning covet Blackhawks’ blueprint.” The column details how the Blackhawks have built a core of players, filled in around them as the seasons go by, and have remained consistent contenders despite all the potential hazards.
You win, you have to pay those who help you win, but the Blackhawks are succeeding. Also, there is the effort behind the scenes. The franchise has developed a feeder system of players from below who are not only skilled and plentiful, but invariably ready. A philosophy, a system on how to play is intact. The Blackhawks Way? Better late than never.
A New York Times story nominated the Blackhawks as “America’s NHL Team” based on overall popularity. Wirtz says if you had told him the Blackhawks would be where they are now when he took over in 2007, he’d have guessed the odds at 1 million to one. He surmises that his late father Bill would be proud of the franchise’s revival, if not the methods Rocky and company have applied.
“Blackhawks Build a Juggernaut With Talent on Ice and in Front Office.” That was the New York Times headline.
Once the Model T. Now the Model.