For fans of the Chicago Blackhawks, Monday’s Stanley Cup clinching victory over the Boston Bruins is one that feels especially sweet.
Yes, the 2010 Cup victory was the first for the city in nearly half a century, snapping a 49-year drought between championships, but this one is special for a completely different reason.
That’s because this entire NHL season very nearly didn’t happen. A lockout, which wiped out 510 regular season games and also caused the cancellation of the Winter Classic and NHL All-Star Game, nearly caused the entire season to be cancelled, but an agreement was reached in early January that allowed a shortened season to be hastily put together.
Looking at the calendar, playing 48 games over the course of 99 days was going to be a challenge for every team in the league, but especially so for the Blackhawks. They not only had to contend with facing the Los Angeles Kings at Staples Center as that team hoisted a championship banner to the rafters, but they also had to play 10 of their first 12 games on the road to begin the season.
Thanks to their excellent team chemistry, which was boosted by an extremely low amount of roster turnover at the end of the 2012 campaign, and a healthy return from Marian Hossa after an injury knocked him out of the previous season’s playoffs, the Hawks got off to an incredible start. They secured at least one point in the standings in every one of their first 24 games, a new record. In that stretch, they also set a team record by winning 11 straight games.
That kind of start captured the minds of Chicago sports fans hungry for some type of positive news. With Derrick Rose’s continued absence hampering the Bulls chances, the Bears going through yet another unsatisfying season, and with the Cubs and White Sox not expected to do anything, the Hawks’ romp through the early part of their schedule filled Windy City fans with excitement about the possibility of a championship.
As the calendar turned to March, however, the Hawks began hitting some adversity. They lost two games in a row to end their incredible points-streak in gut-wrenching fashion, and they also began to see stars like Patrick Sharp go down with injuries as well. To make matters worse, they kept finding ways to lose games in the closing minutes, with consecutive losses to the Anaheim Ducks and the Kings both coming thanks to third period meltdowns.
In the end, however, the Hawks were able to overcome all of those issues, and utilizing yet another lengthy winning streak of seven games, they nailed down their second Central Division title in four seasons and grabbed the President’s Trophy, given to the team with the best record in the NHL, for the first time in 20 years.
That regular season success was aided by several key performances by various Hawks players. The goaltending duo of Corey Crawford and Ray Emery combined to win the Jennings Trophy for Chicago, given to the goaltenders with the lowest cumulative Goals Against Average in the NHL. The duo also engaged in a friendly battle for ice time, and Crawford ultimately ended up winning thanks not only to his own solid play, but also because of a late season leg injury to Emery that ended up dogging him as the playoffs began.
That injury was only one of several bits of adversity the Hawks had to face in the postseason. They went down 3-1 to the Detroit Red Wings in their second round series, and were able to claw back into it and force a Game 7. When the Hawks appeared to take a late 2-1 lead over the Wings in that game, it was referee Stephen Walkom that rained on the parade, negating Niklas Hjalmarsson’s goal and ultimately forcing the game into overtime.
Fortunately for the Hawks, it was yet another player on a team brimming with depth at every position that sent them to the conference finals. Brent Seabrook fired a puck past Jimmy Howard in the OT frame, and completed an improbable comeback.
That play set the Hawks off on a scoring tangent, and they beat the Los Angeles Kings with ease in the first two games of the conference finals. Then, after a Game 3 loss, the Hawks were once again forced to regroup thanks to an unexpected curve ball: the suspension of their top defenseman Duncan Keith. They ended up winning that game thanks to a herculean effort from their offense, including two goals by Patrick Kane, and won the series in Game 5 thanks to hat trick by Kane.
The Stanley Cup Final ended up embodying every single one of the themes of the team’s season. The Hawks had to contend with a goaltender that was widely considered to be superior to Crawford (Tuukka Rask) and a team that was going to use their physicality to bludgeon the quick-footed Hawks into submission. Just like in every other series though, the Hawks were able to adapt as things went on, and they got the job done to grab the second title of the team’s renaissance in the city.
Even in the Game 6 triumph, there was still yet more adversity to overcome. Andrew Shaw getting hit in the face with a puck sent shockwaves of horror through the Hawks' fan base, and was likely even more traumatizing for his teammates. That was followed up by Niklas Hjalmarsson taking a shot to the midsection and skating off the ice gingerly to end the first period.
Despite all of this, and despite giving up a goal with less than eight minutes left in the game, the Hawks did what they had done all season, and they found a way to pull things out. Bryan Bickell scored with a little over a minute left, and Dave Bolland popped home a rebound just 17 seconds later to send the Windy City from dreading a Game 7 to exuberantly celebrating a victory that couldn't have had a more Hollywood ending.
Now, the Hawks get to enjoy a short summer filled with more remarkable images with the Stanley Cup. How will Kane top his appearance at Niagara Falls with the Cup in 2010? Will we see another iconic picture like Andrew Ladd on top of a mountain or Jonathan Toews riding a bus with a young relative? Only time will tell, but as we wait to see what Chicago’s heroes do with the most famous trophy in sports, it’s worth taking a moment to pause and reflect over just what it was that this team has accomplished.
They rescued a city that was in sports oblivion, and helped heal the wounds inflicted by yet another work stoppage. Not just any team would be capable of taking the burden of those expectations, but the Hawks did, and united a city’s sports fans in the process.