History is always part of the lure – and the lore – of the Stanley Cup chase and the Chicago Blackhawks were of a mind to make a little history Monday night.
It had been 77 years since the Blackhawks last won the Stanley Cup on home ice. Bill Stewart coached the '38 Hawks and the circumstances of the victory were utterly peculiar – a below .500 team catching fire at the right time, defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs in the best-of-five final, Carl Voss scoring the game-winning goal. Anachronistically/intelligently, the playoffs ended on Apr. 3.
But on a rainy night in Illinois, when the weather made the streets so impassable that the Stanley Cup barely arrived in time for the ceremony, the Blackhawks rewarded their revived, energized fan base at the United Center (aka The Madhouse on Madison) Monday night, shutting out the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-0 to capture their third Stanley Cup in six years.
After previously winning as the visiting team in Philadelphia (2010) and Boston (2013), Chicago eked out a close, hard-fought six-game series win in statistically, the closest Stanley Cup final in history.
It wasn't always entertaining, and the goals were especially hard to come by in the latter stages of the series, but in the end, the Blackhawks weren't looking to make an aesthetic statement.
Greedily, they were just looking for another ring.
Ultimately, a Blackhawks' team built around captain Jonathan Toews, high-scoring winger Patrick Kane and workhorse defenceman Duncan Keith – the unanimous choice for the Conn Smythe trophy as the playoff MVP - received critical contributions from their lesser lights throughout the final, but it was the stars that shone on the decisive night.
General manager Stan Bowman has done a nice job of keeping his core intact, while tweaking the edges of the line-up to get salary-cap compliant. He will face another juggling act this summer, when the eight-year, $84 million contract extensions to Kane and Toews will oblige him to make further hard roster calls.
But that's all business to be pondered at a later date.
On Monday night, the only thing that mattered was the boisterous on-ice celebration, which followed the win. And though the Blackhawks were careful in the days leading up to the final game to say they were taking nothing for granted, it was clear the chance to win on home ice was something they very much wanted to do.
"We wanted it – for each other and for the city," said Toews. "In so many ways, winning a championship like this in your own city, it's amazing. You can feel the energy in here. It doesn't get any better.
According to Toews, trying to wrap up the series up at home rather than have to fly to Tampa, "adds so much pressure because we wanted it so bad. The fact that we found a way – fate was on our side. We got the bounces finally."
Toews, when asked if he'd dreamed that he could possibly win three Stanley Cups, plus two Olympic golds when he was growing up in Winnipeg, said: "No, it is surreal because every time - you don't know when you're going to get another chance. Some people expect you to – and some don't give you a shot. At the end of the day, all that matters is what we say and think in that room. We've got a group that believes. Top to bottom, everyone has to have an equal commitment.
"Obviously, I've been very fortunate to be part of great teams and have great opportunities and try to contribute the most I can. At the end of the day, it's not about one guy. You've got to be pretty lucky to have the run I've had."
Keith, who became just the fourth defenceman in NHL history to play more than 700 minutes in a single postseason, broke open a tense, scoreless conservatively played game by putting the Hawks on the board 17:13 into the second period, converting his own rebound after Kane had taken the zone and patiently feathered the puck into open ice.
Scotty Bowman, a Blackhawks' consultant and father of general manager Stan Bowman, earned the 14th Stanley Cup ring of his career. He took Keith aside for a couple of words before the Conn Smythe presentation. What did he say to Keith in that private moment?
"I said to him, in a game like that, you need a defenceman to do something extra," said Bowman, "and that's what he did. He jumped up. He said 'I couldn't go up as much because we only had four (defencemen). The big guys came up. Kane had a great game."
Kane then scored his first goal of the final, but 11th of the playoffs, converting a two-on-one with Brad Richards to create the first two-goal lead of the series. There was 5:14 remaining in Game 6 when that finally occurred. Crazy.
"Obviously, we're all proud to be part of this type of team and this type of group," said Keith, "guys so committed to winning, and doing whatever it takes. You've got to tip your hand to Tampa. They played a hell of a series. They're so quick and so fast."
From there, goaltender Corey Crawford shut the door, recording his second shutout of the playoffs. After an awful start to the playoffs – his first-round goals-against average was 4.19 - Crawford got steadily stronger as he went along and had Steven Stamkos's number all series.
In all, seven Blackhawks players have now played for all three championship teams and an eighth – Kris Versteeg – won in 2010, was elsewhere in 2013, but returned for this one.
In an age of parity, where the gap between roughly 20 teams in the NHL's burgeoning middle is miniscule, the Blackhawks proved that sometimes a championship pedigree can make all the difference.
So there'll be talk now of dynasties and what that really means in a 30-team era, when the spending is strictly regulated with a view to preventing just the sort of alchemy the Blackhawks have managed here the past half-dozen years. It is quite an extraordinary achievement, one rooted in a culture shift that can largely be traced to Toews' influence, on and off the ice.
Commissioner Gary Bettman called the Blackhawks a dynasty, but Toews wouldn't go there, saying that was something for others to decide.
"If people want to talk about that, it's pretty special that we're being mentioned along those lines," said Toews. "I think at this point, in our game, this is pretty rare. We all know that."
Coach Joel Quenneville stressed the value and importance of keeping his core group together, noting: "We've gone through a couple years where the transition from our team that ended the year to the start of the year almost was 50 per cent gone. I think Stan has done a great job as far as rebuilding, retooling on the go this year, and at the deadline made some acquisitions to give us some experience as well.
"It's a different evolution each one of the years, but it shows you in the game that you got to be ready to move along and adapt with the salary-cap world."
Bowman said of his son Stan: "He's catching up to me. My first three years, I lost 12 straight games in the finals. I've got a record that no one else is going to break. I think with all the juggling, losing key players and trying to hang on to your best guys, it's not easy. Now he's going to have another tough two weeks. That's the toughest part. It's never any good, even if you go out a month ago, but to go this long, now it's tough to juggle it around."
Bowman said he planned to pass on all his Stanley Cup rings to his kids. "Now, they'll end up with probably three each."
One of the Blackhawks' deadline acquisitions was centre Antoine Vermette, who contributed the game-winning goal in two of their four victories in the final.
The Blackhawks sacrificed a first-round draft choice to rent Vermette's services from the Arizona Coyotes for the final month of the regular season, plus the playoffs – and for the longest time, it looked like a poor investment.
Vermette found the transition to Chicago's go-go system challenging and early in the third round, was rotated out of the line-up by Quenneville. But Vermette won a lot of face-offs for the Blackhawks throughout the playoffs and in a final round where Kane and Stamkos were both mostly held in check, he and linemates Teuvo Teravainen and Versteeg contributed valuable minutes when it mattered most.
When Kane and Toews first arrived, the United Center was cavernously empty. Kane remembered watching exhibition games from the seats because there were so many vacant ones available. Under Rocky Wirtz's ownership, it has become one of the hottest tickets in town. On Monday, the paid attendance was 22,424. Most wore expensive Blackhawks' sweaters. The turnaround has been nothing short of astonishing, the narrative in Chicago completely reversed. Decades of futility have been erased, all the bad times happily cast away in the dustbin of history.