Monday, June 22, 2015

Stanley Cup Champions Again

A week ago tonight was a very exciting time, as the Chicago Blackhawks won their third Stanley Cup in the past six seasons and their second in three years. As far as the NHL goes these days, that's about as close to a dynasty as we may see.

I had blog posts the last two times they won, and I may not have the time to go into as much detail, but I just felt it was appropriate to honor this accomplishment. The Hawks are simply a great team to be a fan of and I am very lucky to have gone on this journey with them. A few years ago, I felt like one of the many bandwagon fans after years of irrelevancy, but I certainly do not feel that way anymore. Seeing them hoist the Cup once again, this time on home ice, was a moment of great pride.

Last year, their defense of the Stanley Cup came to an abrupt and somewhat surprising halt in a Conference Final Game 7 Overtime as a fluke deflection ended their season. We really thought they would eventually win that game, and then the Stanley Cup over an inferior Eastern Conference team.

That was not to be though, and the Blackhawks entered the season focused on regaining their title. They got off to a strong start but hit some rough patches. All-Star goalie Corey Crawford somehow hurt his foot at a concert and missed a chunk of time. Surprisingly, a third string backup goalie named Scott Darling, a Chicagoland native and lifelong Blackhawks fan made the most of his chance to stay on the team, after years as a journeyman around multiple minor leagues and some personal struggles.

By February, Patrick Kane was looking like a potential league MVP, but then he suddenly broke his collarbone and we were told that he might not be able to return until the third round of the Playoffs, if the Blackhawks even made it that far. This was a horrible blow for fans and it felt like the season might be lost. However, with Kane done for the regular season, the front office was able to financially manage to sign some players who would be key contributors in the post-season. Still though, the Hawks dropped a bunch of close games, while struggling offensively. It looked for a time like they may have even have to sweat out a playoff berth. They would make it, although as a third place team in a very strong division.

The good news though was that Patrick Kane was ready to return on Night 1 of the playoffs, and Blackhawks fans were excited as the first series began in Nashville. It got off to a horrific start though as the Predators scored three first period goals. After the first intermission, Coach Joel Quenneville pulled Corey Crawford from the game and put in Scott Darling. The Hawks immediately responded and tied the game, eventually winning it in double Overtime. After a Game 2 loss, Darling was inserted back in goal and played very well as Chicago bounced back in the series, including a triple OT win on a weeknight that I of course had to stay up for.  In a pivotal Game 6 though, the Predators scored quickly on Darling, and suddenly, it was Crawford back in goal, where most thought he would eventually wind up again, and he would never relinquish the net again en route to a Stanley Cup, as the his team mounted a comeback and won the series.

Next up was the very tough Minnesota Wild. Most fans anticipated a long series, with probably a lot of Overtime hockey as well. Nonetheless, despite some dicey moments, the Blackhawks swept the series, knocking off Minnesota for the third straight year. They never even trailed once.

The Conference Finals against the Anaheim Ducks would be tougher, as they had home ice advantage. The Hawks dropped Game 1, but escaped with a big Game 2 win, also in triple Overtime, in what was the longest game in Chicago Blackhawks history. Of course I stayed up for it again on a weeknight, and saw the dramatic win, even after a headbutt goal by Andrew Shaw was waived off earlier in Overtime.

It was truly scary when the Hawks dropped Game 3 at home, but they had been down that road in past seasons, and almost always found a way to win those series. They are a team that gets better the longer a series goes. With this matchup tied at 2 games a piece, the Hawks came out for Game 5 with a horrible effort on the road and were down in the game 3-0. Somehow, someway, they mounted a miraculous comeback thanks to Jonathan Toews, and made it to Overtime. It seemed like they were destined to pull out a big win, but to my surprise were scored upon fairly quickly in the OT. What then? They responded by winning Game 6 at home, and then in going down to Anaheim for Game 7, completely dominated the game and were off to the Final.

Hawks fans were extremely optimistic about the matchup against the young and relatively inexperienced Tampa Bay Lightning. They proved to be a good team though. However, not good enough. The Hawks scored two goals late in Game 1 and stole a win. Tampa Bay bounced back in Game 2 and then once again, things got really scary when they won Game 3 in Chicago. All of the games were decided by one goal. Had our luck really worn out against such a fast team? Game 4 saw the Hawks win an ugly contest, evening things up, then won Game 5 in Tampa Bay by an identical 2-1 score. Things were set for a potential clincher in Chicago last Monday night. Everyone wanted to see it then there and not go back for a Game 7. However, I think most fans believed the Hawks would eventually prevail one way or another. The Lightning had not lost three games in a row all season, but that is what happened as Crawford got the shutout 2-0. The first Hawks goal was scored by Conn Smythe winner Duncan Keith, a model of endurance and consistency, and Patrick Kane scored the insurance goal, in what would be his only lamp-lighting of the Final.

The Chicago Blackhawks were Stanley Cup champions again and Chicago rejoiced! So many stressful moments and events throughout the regular season and playoffs, and yet, deep down, it just always seemed like they would find a way. It was certainly well worth it in the end.

So, that was my quick and probably disjointed recap. I felt compelled to do this though. Championships are definitely something to savor, especially when you live and die with the teams as I have for most of my life. For most of my childhood, being a Chicago sports fan felt "cursed." The Cubs definitely a big reason why, and I can only imagine what it will feel like if they do what their fans are optimistic about happening in the near future.

In spite of the Cubs, it is amazing to realize that there have been 10 titles for "my teams" in my lifetime. Not many other fanbase members can claim that. No city has won more hardware in the past 25 years than Chicago.

I was too young to appreciate the one Super Bowl win for the Chicago Bears, but thanks to Michael Jordan and the Bulls,the '90s were full of great basketball moments, and the Chicago Blackhawks have helped make the past few years pretty exciting as well.

Hopefully, there will be more championships in the future for all four of the major teams I root for, but I certainly can be grateful to have experienced a couple dynasties for teams in red and black. Since I like dynasties so much, no wonder I want Jeb Bush to become President...


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