Final Take: The 2014-2015 Chicago Blackhawks Season

Stanley Cup Finals - Chicago Blackhawks v Philadelphia Flyers - Game Six171498480_slide477286852_slide

Dynasty. In the sports lexicon, that term is defined as one team that dominates their sport or league for an extraordinary length of time. According to the NHL and the Hockey Hall of Fame, there are nine recognized dynasties in the history of professional hockey in North America.

  1. The Original Ottawa Senators (1919-27; won Stanley Cup in 1920, 1921, 1923. and 1927)
  2. Toronto Maple Leafs (1946-51; won Stanley Cup in 1947, 1948, 1949. and 1951)
  3. Detroit Red Wings (1949-55; won Stanley Cup in 1950, 1952, 1954. and 1955)
  4. Montreal Canadiens (1955-60; 5 straight Stanley Cups)
  5. Toronto Maple Leafs (1962-67; won Stanley Cup in 1962, 1963, 1964. and 1967)
  6. Montreal Canadiens (1964-69; won Stanley Cup in 1965, 1966, 1968. and 1969)
  7. Montreal Canadiens (1975-79; 4 straight Stanley Cups)
  8. New York Islanders (1979-83; 4 straight Stanley Cups)
  9. Edmonton Oilers (1983-90; won Stanley Cup in 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988. and 1990)

There might be room to add a tenth dynasty.

When the salary cap was instituted after the 2005 lockout, that leveled the playing field throughout the NHL, and created a lot of parity. The cap also created competitive balance, and in an age where the same team can’t stay the same the next season, the Chicago Blackhawks have been consistent since Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews came on to the team during the 2007-08 season. The two seasons before that, the Hawks were nothing more than a blank-slate franchise mired in irrelevancy. But out of that blank slate, came a blueprint in which other NHL teams can use as a template to build up their own franchise.

But this championship season was unlike any other. The Hawks roared out of the gate, going 25-10-2 by the time they were about to take on the Washington Capitals in the Winter Classic. Then tragedy struck. Assistant equipment manager Clint Reif died on December 21 as a result of an apparent suicide. When January hit, the Hawks went into a slump. For the next two months, they went 12-11-3. Then, an air of uncertainty hovered over the team for the final two months of the regular season. In a game against the Florida Panthers, Patrick Kane fractured his collarbone after taking a seemingly harmless cross-check from Alex Petrovic. At the trade deadline, the Hawks made a lot of crucial moves to set up for the playoffs. The first transaction was to bring in a veteran defenseman. Two second-round draft picks were sent to Philadelphia to acquire Kimmo Timonen. The 40-year old Finnish defenseman had yet to play this season because of blood clots. He knew his hourglass was about to run empty, and knew going to Chicago was his last shot of getting his name on the Stanley Cup. The second transaction was to get a faceoff specialist. The Hawks sent top defense prospect Klas Dahlbeck and their first-round draft pick to Arizona to get Antoine Vermette. The final transaction was to trade speed for size. Ben Smith was sent to San Jose to get Andrew Desjardins. The team did somewhat well without Kane for the final two months of the season, but going 12-8-1 and losing the final four games of the regular season, all of them by one goal against division rivals, the Hawks finished the season 48-28-6, which was good enough for third place in the Central Division.

When the Hawks entered the playoffs, their first round opponent was the Nashville Predators: a division rival that was one of the biggest surprises in the NHL. Our fans believed the this series was going to favor Chicago, because of A) experience and B) the series started in Nashville, where historically, Blackhawk fans turned Bridgestone Arena into Madhouse South because of the number of fans in attendance clad in red outnumbered fans in attendance who are wearing Nashville gold. In order to create more of a home-ice advantage, Nashville restricted tickets to Blackhawks fans. (click to read previous entry about this) The playoffs didn’t start the way the Hawks wanted it to be. After giving up three goals in the first period of Game 1, starting goalie Corey Crawford was pulled in favor of backup Scott Darling. But much like the last time the Hawks faced the Preds back in December, they came back, scoring three goals of their own to tie the game. Game 1 went into overtime. Then into double overtime. Then nearly eight minutes into the second overtime period, Duncan Keith’s game-winner capped off the comeback. However in Game 2, the decision was made to put Corey Crawford back in the net. Nashville blew out the Hawks, 6-2, to tie the series at 1-1. When the series shifted to Chicago, the goaltending carousel switched back to Darling, who would start Game 3. After a 4-2 win in Game 3, Game 4 turned into a marathon. An 8:30 PM CT start time mixed with a triple-overtime scenario, turned Game 4 into the latest game to finish at the United Center. When the clock reached 1:15 AM CT, the Hawks had a commanding 3-1 series stranglehold as Brent Seabrook scored the game-winner one minute into the third overtime period. TSN/NBCSN play-by-play announcer Gord Miller gave Seabrook the nickname “Mr. Overtime” because this was his third overtime winner in the last three seasons, and all of those goals he scored came at crucial points of playoff series. After dropping Game 5 in Nashville, the Hawks had another chance to clinch the series at home. The start of Game 6 looked very much like Game 1. After Matt Cullen gave the Predators a 3-1 lead, Scott Darling was pulled for Corey Crawford. Would this be the same Corey Crawford that let in six goals in the span of 80 minutes played, or the Corey Crawford that won a Stanley Cup back in 2013? It was the latter that showed up, and he stopped all 13 Nashville shots he faced in relief. And like Game 1, Duncan Keith provided the game-winner, and the eventual series-clincher. After ousting the Preds, the Hawks would face off against a familiar foe in the second round.

For the second straight year, the Hawks faced the Minnesota Wild in the second round. But this was a completely different Minnesota Wild team than they saw one year prior. Goalie Devan Dubnyk became THE STORY in Minnesota, putting the team on his back and leading himself into a career year, and a first-round upset over the Central Division champion St. Louis Blues. This series would be the only series the Blackhawks would have home-ice advantage. This series would also be the series in which a 20-year-old Finnish rookie would start making a name out of himself. Teuvo Teravainen was called up from the Hawks’ AHL affiliate in Rockford when Patrick Kane was injured, and had nine points (4 goals, 5 assists) in 34 games played in the regular season, and in Game 1, he scored his first playoff goal, a game-winner to give a Hawks a 1-0 series lead. After a 4-2 win in Game 2, the series shifted to St. Paul, and in Game 3, Corey Crawford was unstoppable, stopping all 30 Wild shots in a 1-0 shutout win, giving the Hawks a commanding 3-0 series stranglehold. In Game 4, the Hawks had a 4-1 lead after a Marian Hossa empty-net goal with 3:07 left in the third period. But the Wild weren’t about to go away quietly. Two goals with the goalie pulled made it 4-3 with 1:37 left made the game interesting. The Hawks held on, sweeping the Wild in four straight games in a series where the Wild did not have the lead, and would play in the Western Conference Final for the third straight year. Their opponent was a team from Southern California, and no: it wasn’t the Los Angeles Kings.

The Anaheim Ducks were the hottest team in the playoffs. Entering the Western Conference Final, the Ducks went 8-1, sweeping the Winnipeg Jets in the first round, and ousting the Calgary Flames in five games. In Game 1, Duck domination continued with a 4-1 win over the Hawks. Needing to win at least one game in Anaheim, Game 2 turned out to be the longest game of the playoffs, the longest game played inside the Honda Center, and the longest game in Blackhawks franchise history. Andrew Shaw looked like he won the game at the 9:45 mark of the second overtime, but under Rule 78.5 (i) states that a headbutted goal is not legal. And so, they played on until 16:12 of the third overtime, when Marcus Kruger tipped in a Brent Seabrook shot to tie the series at 1-1. After a 2-1 loss in Game 3, people were starting to question the Blackhawks defense. After Michal Rozsival had his playoffs ended after fracturing his left ankle in Game 4 of their second-round series against Minnesota, the Hawks were playing mostly with four defensemen. In Game 4 of the Western Conference Final, the Hawks were leading 3-2 with 11:30 left to play in the third period, but Anaheim struck back in the worst possible way — 3 goals in the span of 37 seconds gave the Ducks lead. The Hawks tied the game 3:20 later, when Patrick Kane cashed in on the power play. The game went into overtime. Then into double overtime. And then over 5:30 left in the second overtime, Antoine Vermette ended the game when he pounced in on his own rebound. Game 5 turned out to be just as crazy as Game 2 or Game 4. The Ducks had a 3-0 lead after the first period, and when it looked like the Ducks were about to take a 3-2 series lead in regulation with two minutes remaining, Captain Serious became Captain Clutch. Very similar to a scene in Buffalo in the regular season, Jonathan Toews scored two goals in a short span of time to force overtime in Anaheim. Anaheim eventually did get a 3-2 series lead when Matt Beleskey ended the game 45 seconds into overtime. Facing elimination for the first time, the Hawks hoped Game 6 wasn’t the last game to be played at the United Center this season. It wasn’t. A 5-2 win forced a Game 7 back in Anaheim, and a chance for the Hawks to get some redemption. Almost one year ago, the Kings dethroned the Hawks in overtime on United Center ice when Alec Martinez scored the series-clincher off of Nick Leddy. In Anaheim, Toews continued his momentum, striking twice in the first period, and with a 5-3 win in Game 7, the Chicago Blackhawks would return to the Stanley Cup Final for the third time in the last six seasons.

The Hawks’ opponent in the Stanley Cup Final, the Tampa Bay Lightning, made a little bit of history. To get to the Stanley Cup Final, the Bolts had to go through three Original Six teams. They beat the Detroit Red Wings in seven games in the first round, and in the second round, the Lightning took care of the Montreal Canadiens in six. In the Eastern Conference Final, the Lightning faced the Presidents’ Trophy-winning and defending Eastern Conference champion New York Rangers. That series went the distance, and in Game 7, the Bolts did the unthinkable and shut out the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. For the Lightning to win their first Stanley Cup since 2004, they’d have to go through another Original Six team, one that played very similar to them. In Game 1, Alex Killorn struck first with a shot that somehow beat Corey Crawford. The game was tied until the third period, when Teuvo Teravainen hit a shot that beat Ben Bishop to tie the game. In Teravainen’s next shift, he pickpocketed J.T. Brown and that led to the go-ahead goal be Antoine Vermette. That goal turned out to be the game-winner, as the Hawks took a 1-0 series lead. Game 2 looked like Game 1: another tight see-saw game, but the Lightning evened the series at 1-1, thanks to a power play goal from Jason Garrison. At the end of the game, Ben Bishop was hurt. Andrei Vasilevskiy had to relieve Bishop, and earned the W in Game 2. The dilemma for the Bolts in Game 3 was the status of Ben Bishop. Bishop would get the start in Game 3, and while he was playing under duress, he stopped 36 of 38 shots. The turning pont of the game was a turnover by Chicago which lead to the game-winning goal scored by Cedric Paquette with about three minutes left in regulation. Despite the win, Bishop didn’t play like he was at 100%. For Game 4, there were two main storylines: 1) Was Ben Bishop going to start Game 4? And 2) Would Game 4 be the last game at the Madhouse on Madison in the 2014-15 season? The answer was NO and NO. Andrei Vasilevskiy would get the start for the Bolts, and despite stopping only 17 shots, there would be one more game at the United Center as the Hawks made it a best-of-three with another 2-1 win. In Game 5, Bishop would be the starter after taking four full days of rest, but he would be tested early. After a mishap in communication with Victor Hedman that would concede a goal, Bishop looked like he was all but done. But he shook it off, and continued to play in Game 5. For the third straight game, the game was tied after 40 minutes. What shifted the series in favor of the Hawks was when Kris Versteeg escaped a pinch by the Lightning defense, and had a breakaway attempt. Ben Bishop stopped Versteeg’s attempt, but he let out a juicy rebound, and Antoine Vermette cashed in to give the Hawks a 2-1 win, a 3-2 series lead, and a chance to do something that hasn’t been done since 1938: win the Stanley Cup on home ice.

Monday night: June 15, 2015. It was a night no one would ever forget. Weather threatened the area, but it felt like the electricity of anticipation was harnessed towards the United Center. A season-high crowd of 22,424 packed the Madhouse on Madison for what could be the coronation of a dynasty. Game 6 was scoreless headed into the waning moments of the second period, when eventual Conn Smythe Trophy winner Duncan Keith cashed in on his own rebound to give the Blackhawks the lead. It was a lead the Hawks would never relinquish. In the third period, the Hawks literally weathered the storm, and with five minutes left, Patrick Kane, who never scored a goal in this series to this point, took a blind pass from Brad Richards and like the goal that he scored two years ago to dethrone the LA Kings, potted one into an open net as the Hawks had the first, and eventually only multi-goal lead of the Final. And as the game clock counted down to triple zeroes, for the third time in six years, the Chicago Blackhawks were Stanley Cup Champions. In the last six years, this team has done practically everything you could ever dream about, and winning the Cup on home ice was the proverbial cherry on top of the ice cream sundae. Because of the weather,  the presentation of the Conn Smythe Trophy and the Stanley Cup was delayed by 20 minutes. A police escort had to be called in to bring both trophies to the United Center’s loading dock for presentation on the ice. When Jonathan Toews accepted the Cup, the first person he handed the cup to was Kimmo Timonen. He didn’t play much, or even registered a point, but in his last game of a 16-year career that began in Nashville, the 40-year-old Finnish defenseman went out on top.

84 hours after the Hawks won their sixth Stanley Cup championship, over two million fans crowded the streets of Chicago to celebrate. 65,000 lucky fans attended the rally, which was held at the site of the Hawks’ only outdoor game win: historic Soldier Field. The championship belt for player of the game was presented to C.J. Reif, one of Clint Reif’s four children he left behind. Corey Crawford gave an encore performance of his 2013 speech, and Kris Versteeg was joined by Joakim Nordstrom to perform a duet of Macklemore’s “And We Danced”. As the confetti rained down, all who were in attendance reveled in “We Are The Champions” and “Chelsea Dagger” one more time.

Nothing comes easy. Not even if you’re the Chicago Blackhawks. Out of the three Cup runs in the last six years, this was, by far, the most challenging.  But as the old saying goes: the harder the battle, the sweeter the victory. Who knows if we’ll ever see something like this in the salary-cap era again? And the debates will continue on if the Blackhawks of the 2010s are considered a legitimate hockey dynasty. But let me leave you on this note: the Hawks have done pretty much everything you can think of doing in a short time span.  What else is there left to prove when you’ve pretty much done it all? On that note, I’ll leave you all with this one last moment of championship greatness:


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