The Blackhawks are the Stanley Cup Champions yet again. Did it come easy? Absolutely not.
Credit the Lightning a ton, because for all the talk about how the Blackhawks held the possession/advanced stats advantage (however slim) heading into the series, it was the Lightning who pushed the pace for long stretches. But they didn’t, or couldn’t capitalize on their chances. And when the Blackhawks got one, they buried it like a dagger in the hearts of men.
The Blackhawks were not necessarily the better team on paper. But it was the better team on the ice. And when the pressure mounted, it was the Hawks who held firm and plugged away, while the Lightning panicked and forced plays. Stretch passes that were cut off, shots that were flung towards the goal with reckless abandon, only to be deflected away.
You want to know what organizational culture looks like? That’s what it looks like. That’s what it’s like to have a captain that commands respect and camaraderie. That’s what it’s like to have a coaching staff that pushes the right buttons time and again. That’s what it’s like to have senior advisers as former coaches who’ve won more games than anyone else, ever.
And guess what? The claims that the Hawks are facing their inevitable demise….well, let’s just say that isn’t happening just yet.
There’s been criticism in the past that Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are lucky to be part of such a good team. That they’ve been able to get away with playing poorly in important situations. All that criticism is fair game. In 2013, Toews and Kane combined for 14 points in 23 games and 19 points in 23 games, respectively. And yet they still managed to win the Cup that year, sandwiched around top scorers and notable players like Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Patrick Sharp and the great Bryan Bickell.
Kane won the Conn Smythe that year. Deserved? Sure. Was he the best candidate? Not my problem, or call to make.
And if they play poorly in the future? Guess what, fans have short memories. People were saying that Crosby’s performance in 2008 and Malkin’s performance in 2009 were arguably the 2 best playoff performances by a forward since the days of Lemieux and Gretzky. Now, Malkin can’t score in the playoffs and Crosby’s become a mortal, a pedestrian playoff performer, in the minds of the world.
But right here and right now, these two have been excellent and have rewarded Chicago with the modern equivalent of a dynasty. Oh, they’ve been challenged. Many have stepped forward to stake their claim as the alpha male of the pack. The Kings have taken their turn in the spotlight. The Bruins, Ducks, Wild, Blues and now the Lightning have all given the Hawks a scare at various points in time. But it’s the Hawks who stand atop the heap of bodies, and until the moment they lose their claim to it, they are the ones who knock.
And let’s give special mention to the Lightning here. This was probably the closest Finals series in the last 2 decades (if not longer) that didn’t have either an overtime or a game 7. All it took was one bounce, one tiny bit of luck, an extra goal here or there, and it’s them we’d be lauding as the blueprint for a Cup team. They gave the Hawks fits with their speed.
But the Hawks were able to match. They didn’t fall back, or lose ground. They took every punch, the same way Muhammad Ali took every punch (hint: he didn’t, if you remember that one .gif) and threw it right back. Crawford held the fort, and that was all she wrote. The Lightning will be back eventually, but right now their inexperience, their lack of iced veins, was the biggest difference between the two teams.
But back to the Blackhawks. They have what a contending team needs. as we’re constantly told. They’ve got the stud center. They’ve got the gamebreaking scorer. They’ve got the minute-eating number 1 defenseman. They’ve got the veteran forward with two-way savvy. They’ve got the young, big body with a scorer’s touch. They’ve got a goalie who has clearly proven to be good enough to win a championship not once, but twice. And they’re all under contract long-term. You might not like some of the salary numbers, but they’re there and it’s better to have them than not.
But most importantly, they’ve got replacements for the guys who price themselves out of reach. Some of them are already on the big squad. Teuvo Teravainen proved himself an NHLer by playing his way into consistent minutes (and actually scored more in the playoffs than the regular season, despite playing just half the number of games). He’s going to get a chance to show he can be a long-term member of the core group. For a team that has sorely lacked a legitimate second line center for so long, he is a blessing upon them. Scott Darling will get minutes behind Corey Crawford after playing his way into the equation.
There’s even more who are waiting in the wings down on the farm club, who will in all likelihood get a chance to show their stuff moving forward. Responsible forwards like Ryan Hartman, Mark McNeill and Philip Danault will get long looks at the NHL level on some of the lower lines. On defense, Ville Pokka and Stephen Johns look as if they can play in the NHL right now. If the rumours are true, even players not in the organization will get the opportunity to show they belong, starting with coveted free agent defender Mike Reilly (a Blue Jackets draft pick).
Part of this is by sheer good fortune. Reality is that not every organization has the benefit of pointing to 3 Cup wins in 6 years as a selling point for free agents and young players. And part of this is by design; there is a level of trust that these players have for the Blackhawks, that not only will they get an opportunity, but also that they’ll be developed to their full potential.
The Hawks didn’t have a lot of high-end grinders, but what they did have is a lot of young depth. And when that depth can play, you’ve got a good thing going on. Maybe names like Klas Dahlbeck, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Joakim Nordstrom and Kyle Cumiskey don’t strike you as anything to fear. But when you have 7 or 8 guys who can plug into the bottom 6 or 3rd pairing without the team missing a beat, you’re going to be a tough team to break down. And that luxury should be credited to a group of core players that have enough chemistry to insulate the weaker links, and a coaching staff that can organize the game plan and team style so that even marginal players can hold their own.
So the end is not nigh for the Hawks. They’ll likely move some pieces. Maybe they lose some bigger names. For the first time since 2011-12, they’ll look quite beatable. But they have the nucleus of the team, an organization that has some idea of what they’re doing, and the experience of being winners, three times over. So vulnerable they may be moving forward, but take them lightly at your own peril. Because they’ll be back somehow.
And when they are, as the NHL says: in the playoffs, anything can happen.