Thursday, June 10, 2010
The Chicago Blackhawks are Stanley Cup champions.
After 49 years, the Stanley Cup will be returning to Chicago after a hard-hitting, dramatic final series that began when the Blackhawks, the #2 seeded team from the west, swept the San Jose Sharks to gain their place in the finals after a long season which began back in early October with a pair of games in Helsinki, Finland. Their opponents were the surprising and tenacious Philadelphia Flyers, who only qualified for the playoffs by winning a shootout against the New York Rangers on the final day of the season.
Seeded 7th, the Flyers eliminated the #2 New Jersey Devils, climbed out of the deepest of holes to defeat the Boston Bruins 4 games to 3 after falling behind 3 games to none, not only in the series, but 3-0 in Game 7 itself, to become only the third team in NHL history to win after being down 3-0 out of 162 tries. Taking advantage of the surprising number of first round upsets, the #7 Flyers faced off against the #8 Montreal Canadiens, who they eliminated in five games.
Game 1 of the finals was a bizarre affair, as puck after puck found the back of the net, with five goals in the first period, followed by five more in the second, leaving the teams tied at 5-5 after two periods in a flashback to the firewagon hockey of the late 1980's. Tomas Kopecky won the game for Chicago with the only goal of the third period, leaving everyone thinking they had just watched the National Pond Hockey League championships.
Game 2 was the kind of tight playoff hockey everyone expected Game 1 to be, as both teams rededicated themselves to defense first. Chicago was able to emerge with the victory after Marian Hossa and Ben Eager scored 28 second apart in the second period. Philadelphia made it a nail-biter with a power play goal at 5:20 of the third, but Antti Niemi held off the Flyers to win the game 2-1.
Philadelphia dug deep to win Game 3 at home when Claude Giroux deflected in a goal at 5:59 of overtime to win the game 4-3.
The Flyers took advantage of every opportunity to punish each Chicago mistake in Game 4 to take a 3-1 lead after the first period. Ville Leino put the Flyers up by 3 with 13 minutes to play but the Blackhawks sent a reminder that no lead was safe when they closed the margin to 1 with a pair of goals less than four minutes apart, but the Flyers sealed the victory with a Jeff Carter empty net goal with 25 seconds remaining and Chicago looking to force overtime.
Chicago continued the trend of the home team winning each game by dominating the first period, which included the physical game as well as the scoreboard, as Dustin Byfuglien sent Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger flying with the most memorable hit of the series.
Chicago's three goals on 13 shots to chase Flyers starting goaltender Michael Leighton from the game gave them a commanding lead after one period thanks to coach Joel Quenneville shaking up his line combinations, including breaking up the Jonathan Toews-Patrick Kane-Byfuglien line so Pronger would not be able to shut down all of them. For the remainder of the game, each time the Flyers would score, Chicago would respond to maintain the three goal cushion, the final one coming into an empty net 31 seconds after the Flyers pulled within two with 2 1/2 minutes remaining. Pronger would finish the game a remarkable -5 and was in the penalty box for another goal.
Game 6 back in Philadelphia saw Byfuglien score his 11th goal of the playoffs on the power play to open the scoring as Chicago dominated play, only to have the Flyers escape the period even at 1-1 with a goal with less than 20 seconds left in the first period.
The Flyers took a lead at the 8 minute mark, taking advantage of a fallen Chicago defender. Patrick Sharp's 11th goal of the playoffs two minutes later evened the score at 2-2.
Andrew Ladd tipped in a shot from an unguarded Niklas Hjalmarsson at 17:43 of the second. Chicago however, allowed the Flyers to take the game to them, especially in the second half of their third period, which finally paid off for the Flyers as they evened the score when a puck deflected past Niemi off of Marian Hossa's skate. Hossa was looking for his first Stanley Cup on his third consecutive trip to the finals with this third different club.
The remainder of the third period was played scoreless and the game moved to overtime. Some shaky play by Chicago nearly cost them the game early, but with four minutes gone, Kane got the puck out near the point from Brian Campbell, who held in a clearing attempt, put several dekes on Flyer's defenseman Kimmo Timonen and cut around him as he drove to the corner. There, from a sharp angle, he fired the puck at Leighton and watched as it beat the goalie just under his pad as he tried to get his leg down fast enough.
Once past Leighton, the puck dissappeared into the lining of the goal. Kane erupted in celebration as no one else seemed to be aware that he had just scored the cup winning goal, as the red light never came on, the referee never signaled a goal and the players on both teams failed to react. As Kane jubilantly flew down the ice waving his arms, the rest of the Blackhawks joined in on the fun as the goal was confirmed, which set off a new round of euphoria for the Blackhawks and made Niemi the first Finnish goaltender to backstop his team to the Stanley Cup.
Toews was named the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy and then returned to the red carpet to accept the Stanley Cup on behalf of his teammates before handing it off to Hossa for the honor of being the first to receive it from the team captain.
The championship is only the fourth ever won by the Blackhawks, and only the second since 1938.
The Blackhawks turnaround has been a remarkable thing to watch. Named "The Worst Franchise in Professional Sports" by ESPN in February of 2004, the team let go their announcer of 25 years, Pat Foley, and reached a low point in 2006-07 with an average attendance of 12,727.
The turnaround began with the drafting of Toews third overall in 2006. After the 2006-07 season, fortune smiled on the Blackhawks. After finishing with the fourth-worst record in the NHL, the won the draft lottery, which allowed them to select Kane first overall in 2007.
Prior to the start of the 2007-08 season, long time club owner Bill Writz passed away and the team was taken over by his son Rocky, who immediately changed many of his father's long-standing and unpopular policies, including not allowing home games to be shown on television locally. The team also reconnected with several estranged star players of the past, including the charismatic trio of Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito as well as bringing back play by play man Foley.
They also spent money freely for new players, held their first fan convention and won the right to host the Winter Classic, the annual outdoor game on New Year's Day. They also brought in hockey genius Scotty Bowman as a senior advisor and made a quick and decisive change in coaches, putting Quenneville behind the bench after only four games of the season. By the end of the 2008-09 season, the Blackhawks, thanks in part to the 40,818 fans in attendance at the Winter Classic, averaged 22,247 fans per game, the highest average attendance of any professional hockey club in the world, just two short years after ranking 29th out of 30 in the NHL. Even without the bump from the Winter Classic, they still had the highest average attendance in the league for games played at the United Center.
They also made the playoffs in 2008-09 after missing the playoffs nine times in the previous ten seasons, making it all the way to the conference finals and gaining valuable experience for their young lineup, which they clearly put to good use in winning the championship last night.
Our featured jersey is a Reebok 2009-10 Chicago Blackhawks Jonathan Toews jersey, which features the 2010 Stanely Cup Finals patch, as worn when Toews was named the winner of the 2010 Conn Smythe trophy.
At just 22 years of age, Toews now has two World Junior Championship gold medals, a World Championship gold medal, an Olympic gold medal from the tournament in Vancouver where he was named Best Forward, and now a Conn Smythe Trophy and a Stanley Cup.
The Stanley Cup victory makes him the youngest member, at 22 years and 41 days of age, of the Triple Gold Club for players who have won a World Championship gold medal, Olympic gold medal and the Stanley Cup.
Here is video of Patrick Kane's unusual game winning goal, which was not immediately apparent to anyone but Kane himself!
In this video, Jonathan Toews lifts the Stanley Cup for the Blackhawks for the first time since 1961.