Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Hawks Bring the Cup Back Home in Epic Finish

Knowing these Blackhawks, we should have figured that the season would end with drama. But I don't know if anyone could have predicted what we all witnessed last night in Boston. Raise your hand if you thought the Hawks, down a goal with just over a minute left, were headed to a Game 7 tomorrow in Chicago. It's ok, I'm sure the majority of us were. That is, of course, until a furious, nearly simultaneous 2 goal onslaught gave the Hawks the lead within 17 seconds of each other. Less than a minute later, the Hawks were the Stanley Cup Champions and a celebration for the ages began in Chicago.

I was one of those thinking that a Game 7 was on the way. Boston got their second goal later in the 3rd period, and with the way this series had gone, Game 7 seemed all but certain. The Hawks looked a little gassed, and at times towards the end of the period appeared to have Game 7 on their minds. Some of the players would even admit that after the game. And yet, once the Hawks pulled Corey Crawford and secured their man advantage, they executed brilliant team play to even the score. Ironic, if you think about it, that it was the man advantage that helped secure the tie after all the angst that the power play has delivered this series and throughout most of the playoffs.

Even the most hardcore Blackhawks fan would probably admit at that point the shock, and joy, of being able to play for overtime. The Hawks had been there before, and in this series alone had already gone to overtime in three separate games. Hawks fans were already deep in celebration just having tied the game up, with little idea that as the team settled in to take the ensuing face off, little more than 17 seconds would pass before they would have a lead that would bring the Stanley Cup home to Chicago.

Look at both of those. The first goal is an example of superior skill and chemistry. Patrick Kane explodes through the neutral zone, blowing past defenders to secure a spot on the wing. He takes the quick shot, hoping to catch a crease, and when it misses he and Jonathan Toews tear off on the forecheck. As they battle, Toews, with an unreal feel for his teammates, peels off towards the bottom of the net as Duncan Keith wins the puck and delivers a great pass to the captain. On the flip side, Michal Handzus and Bryan Bickell, both aware of what their teammates can accomplish, slide over to try to capitalize off a Toews pass. Bickell awaits a beautiful pass by Toews for the equalizer. Pure hockey poetry.

With the second, you almost feel that Joel Quenneville was playing for OT as he has Bolland's line out there. It may just be that Kane, Toews, and company were getting a rest, but could anyone, including Coach Q, expect what was to come next? There, Bolland skates into the zone and dumps it off to Michael Frolik, who follows the Hawks' successful model of getting shots on net to a T. Frolik's rebound bounces off to Marcus Kruger, who gingerly tips it back to Johnny Oduya, ready and waiting to slap the one-timer off for a shot. Frolik, moving since his shot, circles around, deflects the puck, and Bolland peskily wins a tough battle at the net for the deflection/rebound and slams it home for an unbelievable, transcendent moment that will be remembered throughout Chicago sports history. It was at this point that an entire City began to explode.

It's time to celebrate.
I find it symbolic of the depth of this Hawks team that the two goals scored to even the score and win the game weren't scored by the likes of a Kane, Toews, Patrick Sharp, or Marian Hossa, but rather by Bickell and Dave Bolland. This year, like the 2010 Cup Year, the Hawks used their depth to roll four deep lines at opponents, refusing to give the other team even a moment off. Guys like Bickell, Bolland, Andrew Shaw (a warrior who played with a swollen and bloody face), Marcus Kruger, and Michael Frolik made a significant impact on the team and contributed mightily to the team's victory. If you think back throughout the playoffs, we remarked about how the stars weren't showing up like we expected. Kane rebounded sufficiently to win a Conn Smythe that he deserved (even if Crawford did too), but Shaw became even more of a fan favorite and Bickell certainly made himself some serious cash.

The Cup, beginning its trip back home.
I honestly don't know if I've ever witnessed a better finish to a championship game ever. To tie the game on a beautiful sequence of hockey, and then to take the lead on a crafty, scrappy play by Bolland at the net, on the road, against a superb team and goaltender, in Game 6 with a championship on the line - it just doesn't get much better than that. Moments like that are both what we all seek in watching sports and yet rarely get the opportunity to witness. We've had incredible stars and teams, and this Hawks' team and that Hawks' moment are both going to be up there in the "remember-where-you-were" category. It was a picturesque way to finish an already-magical season. It was a surreal sequence of superb achievement, one that caps off a string of performances from individual Hawks players that ultimately come together to represent the excellence of the entire team.

It's a strange feeling, having a team you live and die for win the championship. You can never quite prepare yourself for it even if you've experienced it before. That first fleeting moment where you realize that the Hawks have won makes all the struggles, all the anxiety, all the games worth it. You watch all of the players going crazy and you feel cause to celebrate right alongside them. After all, this was their win, but they share it with their franchise, their fans, and their city. We've been alongside them for this entire ride, so being able to release all of the energy with them only strengthens our bond and identity with both the team and all of the other fans. The Blackhawks, the City of Chicago, and all of Blackhawks nation won last night.

Time to celebrate in Chicago
The explosion of the celebration by the city last night was undeniable and unbelievable. The crowds on Clark, casting away barricades on either side of the street as if they didn't exist, were something that had to be seen to be believed. I was at the parade in 2010, saw fans clustered and celebrating like this, but there was something different about this time around. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that this team and this championship represent the culmination of the most remarkable franchise-turnaround in modern professional sports. From the time Rocky Wirtz assumed the role as Chairman, these Hawks were on the move. Investing in a superb young core, the Hawks struck gold in winning the 2010 Cup. I remember the diehards always being there, sitting in the UC with 5,000 fans and not being able to watch the games on television. The 2010 Cup brought old fans back and sparked interest with others. Now, with another Cup in hand, the celebration we all witnessed last night by an entire city shows just how the Blackhawks have cemented their place atop the Chicago sports throne.

It's too early to talk about next year, but it's not too early to talk about how special this team and these players are. There were plenty of new faces this year, and certainly different from the 2010 Cup Year, but the core of this team has largely stayed the same. Toews, Kane, Sharp, Hossa, Seabrook, Keith - all of these guys were around in 2010 and represent just how special this team could still be going forward. It's almost strange to realize that Toews is 25 years old, yet already has 2 Stanley Cup Victories as the Blackhawks captain.

I'll never forget this season. From the unbelievable winning streak to start the season, to the dominating first round performance, to the epic comeback down 3-1 against Detroit, to a 17 seconds that won the season that will be etched in our memories forever, this season was filled with moments that illustrate why it's so amazing to be a sports fan, and more specifically right now, a Hawks fan. This team has captured the hearts, minds, and loyalty of a rabid fan base and city. I personally don't know if I've ever lived and died through every minute detail and moment of a sports season like I did with the Hawks this year, and I usually do that anyways. Right now, all of Chicago is already engaged in an epic celebration, one that exploded last night throughout the city, and one that is certain to continue now that the Cup is back home. How appropriate that the first day of summer was less than a week ago, as the celebration that will last a summer, and be remembered for a lifetime, has only just begun.