The road back to the summit of hockey’s Everest wasn’t an easy one for the Chicago Blackhawks. After a forced mini-fire sale during the 2010 offseason, the Hawks struggled throughout the 2010-11 season on their quest to repeat as Stanley Cup champions, and after losing the last game of the regular season to the Detroit Red Wings 4-3, their fate was decided in the hands of the outcome of the 1,230th and final game of the 2010-11 regular season. A win by the Dallas Stars would knock the Hawks out of the Stanley Cup playoffs. A win by the Minnesota Wild would ensure that the Hawks would face a familiar foe in the first round — the Presidents’ Trophy champion Vancouver Canucks. The Wild won 5-3, and the Hawks were boarding a plane to Vancouver. However, the Canucks pushed the Hawks to the end of their Cup defense by winning the first three games of the best-of-seven series. On the brink, the Hawks blew out the Canucks 7-2 in Game 4, shut out the Canucks 5-0 in Game 5, and in an epic Game 6 held on Easter Sunday, a penalty shot by Michael Frolik, the former 2006 first-round draft pick by the Florida Panthers, tied the game at 3-3, and Ben Smith, the former Boston College Eagle, won the game in overtime after Roberto Luongo, in a back-up role, gave up a juicy rebound that Smith buried on. The Canucks took command for most of Game 7 on a goal by Alex Burrows, but with less than two minutes in regulation, Jonathan Toews scores short-handed to level the game and force overtime. However, a turnover by defenseman Chris Campoli led to the series-clinching winner from Burrows, and the Blackhawks’ defense of the Stanley Cup ended at the hands of a team that they defeated the previous two years.
The 2011-2012 season saw some change, as Vice President/General Manager Stan Bowman added some toughness in the form of forwards Jamal Mayers, Dan Carcillo, and defensemen Sean O’Donnell, and Steve Montador. The Blackhawks were leading the Central Division by the end of January 2012, but a nine-game winless streak derailed any chances of winning the division, and the Hawks finished the regular season fourth in the Central Division; sixth in the Western Conference. In their playoff series against the Pacific Division champion Phoenix Coyotes, goalie Mike Smith stymied the Hawks in every which way possible. In that series, the first five games were decided in overtime, with Mikkel Boedker scoring back-to-back overtime winning goals in Games 3 and 4. The Hawks season ended in Game 6, when Smith posted a 4-0 shutout in Chicago. With back-to-back first-round ousters, the Blackhawks suddenly looked like a team that can’t win when it mattered the most. Suddenly, the threat of a lockout came, and the future of NHL hockey soon became uncertain. It turned out to be a blessing as most of the players kept in hockey shape by playing in the AHL, in Europe, or participating in charity games.
When the lockout ended the morning of January 4, all thirty NHL teams knew that all points would come at a premium, given that the season was cut short by more than one-half. The Blackhawks were criticized before the beginning of the season for not making enough moves to make the team better, specifically the goaltending performance of Corey Crawford and Ray Emery. The Hawks played with a chip on their shoulder all season, knowing that they had something to prove to the world, but what they were about to do turned out to be one of the most dominant and record-breaking seasons in NHL history. It all began on the afternoon of January 19 in Los Angeles, where the Kings raised their Stanley Cup championship banner to the rafters of Staples Center. The Hawks spoiled all the pomp and pageantry with a 5-2 win. This would be the start of a six-game win streak; the best start to a season in the 87-year history of this franchise. However, three shootout losses didn’t faze the Hawks, and their streak of 24 games to start the season without losing in regulation time brought NHL hockey back to the forefront of sports after the lockout tarnished its image. However, there were two moments that will forever be embedded in the minds of Hawks fans forever when it came to “The Streak”; The first came in Calgary the night of February 2. After giving up a goal from defenseman Jay Bouwmeester with 34.2 seconds remaining in regulation time, the Hawks, running on fumes after a game the night before in Vancouver, pulled goaltender Ray Emery for a six-man attack in the offensive end. The game-tying goal was the embodiment of clutch:
The second came in a Wednesday Night Rivalry game against the Colorado Avalanche. With the clock ticking down in the third period, an unexpected hero delivered a picture that Sports Illustrated used as a cover stating that the Blackhawks were “the franchise that brought hockey back.”
And from there, the Hawks never looked back. They ran away with the Central Division decisively, going wire-to-wire in claiming the number-one seed in the Western Conference, and eventually, the Presidents’ Trophy for claiming the best regular-season record in the NHL. When the playoffs began, there were big expectations for the Blackhawks. With the historic regular season that they just completed, it was expected that they SHOULD win the Stanley Cup. In the first round, they dispatched the Minnesota Wild in five games. However in the next round, things wouldn’t be easy. Their next round opponent was the Detroit Red Wings, and with divisional realignment approved by the NHL’s Board of Governors for next season, this would be the last time these two Original Six teams would meet as divisional or conference opponents. The Red Wings took a commanding 3-1 series lead, but one of the most enduring images of the season was after Jonathan Toews took a third-consecutive penalty in Game 4. With frustrations about to reach a boiling point, Brent Seabrook assured the Blackhawks captain that this series wasn’t over yet. Headed back home, the Hawks won Game 5, 4-1. Going back to Detroit, the Hawks scored 3 goals in the third period to force a Game 7 back in Chicago. In that Game 7, Brent Seabrook became a Game 7 legend.
In the Western Conference Final, the Blackhawks took on the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings. The Hawks defended home ice through the first two game of the series, but when the series went to L.A., the Hawks faced a daunting challenge: the Kings never lost on Staples Center ice in the 2013 playoffs. After dropping Game 3, 3-1, the Hawks, playing without their best defenseman due to a one-game suspension for high-sticking Jeff Carter, the Hawks won Game 4, 3-2, and had a chance to go to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2010. Patrick Kane’s second goal gave the Hawks a 3-2 lead with 5 minutes left in the third period, but a deflected shot from the stick of Anze Kopitar defected off of Mike Richards’ pants to tie the game at 3-3. One overtime did nothing, but in the second overtime period, Patrick Kane did something that hadn’t been done since Wayne Gretzky did it 20 years ago: score a hat trick in a Conference Final-clinching game.
And that led to a dream matchup in the Stanley Cup Final. For the first time since 1979, two Original Six teams would meet, as the Boston Bruins and the Chicago Blackhawks would meet for the first time with the 120-year-old Stanley Cup on the line. Game 1 was an instant classic. In one of the longest games in Stanley Cup Final history, Michal Rozsival’s shot deflected off of the stick of Dave Bolland and off of the shin pad of Andrew Shaw to give the Hawks a 1-0 series lead when the clock struck Midnight.
In Game 2, the Hawks had all the momentum in Game 2, but the Bruins took over, eventually winning Game 2 in overtime to tie the best-of-seven series 1-1. With the series shifting to Boston, the Bruins felt comfortable on TD Garden ice, having won their last 6 home playoff games. A mysterious injury scratched Marian Hossa and the Bruins took a 2-1 series lead with a 2-0 shutout. In Game 4, a crucial change was made, reuniting Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews on the same line. In that game, a couple of issues was resolved: the Hawks scored a power play goal for the first time since Game 2 of the Western Conference Final, and Jonathan Toews scored for the first time since Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinal series against Detroit. For the third time in the last four games, the game had to be decided in overtime. Brent Seabrook became an overtime hero, once again.
With the series tied 2-2 headed back to Chicago and all the momentum back with the Hawks, they dispatched the Bruins 3-1 in Game 5, thanks to 2 goals by the man who would eventually win the Conn Smythe Trophy, Patrick Kane. In Game 6, the Bruins would have to pull out some of that vintage Garden magic to force a Game 7 back in Chicago. Milan Lucic gave the Bruins a 2-1 lead with seven minutes and change left in regulation time. And then came 17 seconds that will live in Stanley Cup and Blackhawks lore FOREVER.
And so, the best season in Chicago Blackhawks history concluded with their fifth Stanley Cup championship; their second in the last four years. And with the way things are looking, the Blackhawks might just be the new model franchise in the NHL. It’s the same model that the Detroit Red Wings have used for the past 22 seasons since Mike and Marian Ilitch bought the team from the Norris family in 1982. Thanks to the Midas touch of chairman Rocky Wirtz and President and CEO John McDonough, the Hawks could be a force to be reckoned with for years to come. And with the salary cap shrinking in the 2013-14 season, the Hawks won’t have to repeat history like they did during the 2010 offseason. If the winds of change are coming, Stan Bowman is much more prepared for the challenge that’s about to come.