Thursday, June 10, 2010

Blackhawks Reconnect With Lord Stanley

Duncan Keith's Blackhawks are Soldiers of Fortune

Last night there were tears rolling down the cheeks of many Chicagoland citizens, as the second longest Stanley Cup drought in NHL history came to a dramatic end in Philadelphia. The Chicago Blackhawks, who last won the NHL's coveted Cup in 1961 (six years before the Flyers entered the league, when names like Mikita and Hull were household names), were later seen in the bowels of the arena, smoking well-deserved cigars and drinking Bud Light from the Cup, while the amazingly resilient Philadelphia Flyers were left to ponder the what-ifs.

As in: what if Michael Leighton stopped that harmless sharp-angle shot by Patrick Kane in overtime?

For the Flyers, unfortunately, the bitterness of losing this tumultuous and hotly contested six-game series will likely overshadow all their remarkable achievements of the past two months. In losing an NHL record sixth consecutive Stanley Cup Final, there will no doubt be some grimness seeping into the collective psyche of a city and a franchise that should be swelling with pride.

On paper ten or twenty years from now, this loss to the Blackhawks might look like another postseason hiccup for the Flyers, but between those unforgiving lines these battle-worthy Flyers weaved a story of courage, desire, and grit that even the famed Broad Street bullies of 1975 would have to tip their caps to.

Philadelphia hasn't won the Cup since Bobby Clarke's heyday in 1975, but there should be a giant caveat in the ledger next to the results for the 2010 final, because this team - win or lose - proved itself to be truly special.

It wasn't exactly clear what would become of them when they stumbled into the playoffs on the last day of the regular season on the strength of a shootout win over the Rangers, but all doubts about their potential were methodically erased when they orchestrated the league's first comeback from a 3-0 deficit since 1975 (and only the third in the league's history) against the Bruins in the Conference semifinals.

The rest was supposed to be history for this obviously charmed bunch of bearded warriors, but the Blackhawks (another bunch of bearded warriors that happened to be just a wee bit better than the Flyers) put the kabosh on the Flyer's Cinderella aspirations before a packed house of orange clad maniacs last night at the Wachovia Center in Philly.

When the Cup-clinching tally was finally allowed after a look at a video review, the Blackhawks breathed a sigh of relief that could be felt all the way into the heartland of America. Their stone-faced coach, Joel Quenneville, even flashed a smile.

For Chicago, it must have been reminiscent of one of those horror movies where you stab someone a hundred times but they keep coming back to life. The Flyers were the team that nobody could kill. Sure, they could be outplayed, and their goaltending left a little bit to be desired, but just when they were pushed to the brink and it appeared they could be left for dead, the Flyers let their white teeth show through their yellow beards and it was clear that they were far from dead.

But Chicago, to their credit, did not stumble in the face of their indefatigable opponents. They put the pedal to the metal last night in a very hostile environment, and when it was all said and done, their effort was just enough to get them to hockey's holy grail.

When the Conne Smythe award-winning Manitoba native, Jonathan Toews took the cup and handed it to Marian Hossa, the magnitude of what had just occurred transcended both time and place for a moment, providing spectators with a feel of what type of long-term sacrifice and commitment it takes to get your name etched on Lord Stanley's Mug, which was first awarded to hockey's best team in 1893.

Hossa, who had failed in his two previous tries - one with Detroit and another with Pittsburgh - held the cup high over his head and you could feel not only the joy, but also the relief that the work - and the pressure - was finally over.

"It was definitely one of the memories I won't forget," said Hossa's teammate, Slovakian Tomas Kopecky. "He was so determined. He was so driven to win the cup...once I saw him... it's one of the moments you play hockey for."

Hossa, who many unfairly labeled as a 'jinx', was a major contributor to the final runs of Pittsburgh in 2008 and Detroit in 2009. But ironically, it was Pittsburgh who won the Cup last year over the Redwings, after Hossa had signed with Detroit.

But none of that matters anymore. All that matters is that the Flyers are finally dead and the Blackhawks are finally the champs.

We tend to forget what's between the lines when we look back at history. Little details, like a goaltender making good in his first-ever Stanley Cup appearance, or a group of unsung defensemen putting the plus in plus/ minus. Which is all the more reason to appreciate it now.

"What a feeling," said Hossa. "This is unbelievable."

His words may have been generic, but the smile on his face and on those of his teammates, were not.