Their season began back on Jan. 19 – banner-raising night for the reigning Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings – where the Chicago Blackhawks were the visitors and sent an important message that reverberated around the NHL that day.
The Blackhawks blasted the Kings out of the rink, beginning a run that will go into the NHL history books as a season for the ages. They went on a wire-to-wire run - 24 games without a loss to start the season and a brilliant 11th hour finish in the final game of the season, a dramatic 3-2 come-from-behind victory in the final 70 seconds to stun the Boston Bruins and clinch their second Stanley Cup of the past four years.
Watch: Blackhawks 3, Bruins 2
The two goals, by Bryan Bickell and David Bolland, turned imminent defeat into an extraordinary, astonishing victory that came virtually out of nowhere. Bruins’ defenceman Dennis Seidenberg called it the worst disappointment he’s experienced as a professional athlete.
“We were up by a goal and on to a Game 7,” said Seidenberg. “To give it away that quickly was pretty disappointing.”
Even Bolland, who scored the winning goal, acknowledged that a seventh and deciding game seemed almost certain.
“You do have those feelings,” said Bolland, “but as a team we never give up. We’ve battled back from bigger deficits than this.”
Chicago became just the seventh team in history to win both the President’s Trophy as the NHL’s regular-season champions and the Stanley Cup in the same year, a measure of just how much the 2012-13 season belonged to Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and the rest of the Blackhawks’ supporting cast.
Kane won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ MVP, but it could have gone to any number of players from the Blackhawks’ deep supporting cast.
“That’s really what made it a special season,” said coach Joel Quenneville. “Everybody contributed. Obviously, you get challenged in the playoffs and you have to get some breaks and we did. But it happened us to all year - guys kept finding different ways of getting it done; and there was no more entertaining or exciting game than this one.”
The final turnaround began when team captain Toews worked the puck out of the corner and threaded it past Zdeno Chara to Bickell, who cashed in the tying goal and silenced the TD Garden crowd. With the Bruins reeling and unable to believe their poor luck, the Blackhawks came right back down the ice again and scored 17 seconds later, a goal by Bolland on a hard wrister in front of Tuukka Rask.
Just like that, it was over.
Just like that, the Blackhawks pulled one out of the fire, a trademark of a team that – like their adversaries – had a never-say-die quality about them all year.
“Maybe we were charmed,” said Quenneville. “It was one of those years where things just went right from start to finish.”
From October until January, as the lockout forced the cancellation of 42 per cent of the regular-season schedule, Toews was one of a number of NHL players who were busily sniping away at commissioner Gary Bettman for the way he was handling the labour negotiations.
There was serendipity that in June, Toews was there to accept the Stanley Cup from Bettman.
Toews’s availability for the clinching game was the subject of much discussion in the preceding 48 hours, after the team wouldn’t let him play the third period of Saturday’s 3-1 victory over the Bruins because of an “upper-body” injury. But Toews acknowledged Monday morning that it would take a lot for him to miss a possible Cup-clinching game, given how they only come around a handful of times in any players’ life – and he didn’t look any worse for wear.
Toews scored the first Blackhawks goal in the second period, tying the game for Chicago after a rocky start. The game began with the Bruins’ owning a decisive edge in play, but emerging from the opening period ahead by just a Chris Kelly goal.
“We’ve been through a lot together this year,” said Toews. “This is a sweet way to finish it off.”
“You never say die,” said Blackhawks’ defenceman Brent Seabrook, who has an overtime hero twice for them in these playoffs. “We’ve got a lot of guys who can score goals. You can see with that last goal, it was a quick pass and a great shot and things can change just that quickly.
Jaromir Jagr, on the vanquished Bruins, left the game with an undisclosed injury towards the end of the first period and that forced Bruins’ coach Claude Julien to toss his lines in the mix master. Jagr had waited a record 21 years between trips to the final. This was almost certainly his last best chance to win again.
Toews, meanwhile, is just 25 and played a remarkable game, considering his physical limitations. The Blackhawks have managed to tiptoe back from the salary-cap abyss to rebuild the supporting cast that was so critical to their 2010 Stanley Cup success. For all the iffy penalty calls, the injuries to key players and the issue with the ice that stemmed from 33 C temperatures and high humidity levels at game time, it turned into an exceptional final, aesthetically one of the most pleasing in years.
The Bruins were on the winning side of a similar wild finish earlier in the playoffs, when they defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs in the seventh game, overcoming a 4-1 deficit to win 5-4 in overtime. Julien said he “would probably put the Toronto comeback maybe a little crazier than that because we had to score four goals to win that game. But at the same time, it's one of those things where you look at who you played against.
“That Chicago team I think lost seven games in the regular season, and you can see why. They're deep. They got stronger as the series went on, and they're a great hockey club. They need to be congratulated on that.”
Chicago plays an up-tempo style that forces teams to backpedal and creates brief seconds of open ice where their skilled players can take over, which is how they managed to steal victory from the jaws of defeat.
They won with a goaltender, Corey Crawford, who struggled with his nerves at times in last year’s playoffs, when they were a first-round casualty, losing out to the Phoenix Coyotes. But Crawford seemed more in control this year of everything, from his psyche to his technique, and even if he had a few bad moments handling high shots on his glove side, for the most part gave the Blackhawks an opportunity to win most every night.
But how they won this one is something they’ll talk about for years.
"How can you call that?" said Toews. "We knew we needed just one bounce there. Obviously, that was a big goal for them to go up 2-1. But you never know what can happen, so you don't stop playing until the end."