|(Bill Smith/Chicago Blackhawks)|
Surely it annoys, yielding a freakish overtime goal in a home Game 7 that was supposed to be your path toward another Stanley Cup Final.
But just as surely, the Blackhawks perform on a stonking pedestal never occupied by this franchise. Sunday night was the 94th playoff assignment for the core roster, before the 277th consecutive United Center sellout, plus a gaudy 22.7 local television audience anticipating a repeat championship and the third in five seasons.
As boxers say, step into the ring often enough, you’re going to get punched, and probably knocked out. And as coaches throughout the equal-opportunity National Hockey League chant: That other team also has good players who like to win and hate to lose.
What’s vastly different about then and now for a Blackhawks fan base that has grown exponentially is an attachment to the organization based on unmitigated trust. You expected the Blackhawks to find a way, because they almost always do, on the ice and in the front office. When sudden defeat trumps rampant expectation, shock ensues.
In 1971, the team incurred arguably the most excruciating loss in franchise annals. Up 2-0 in Game 7 of a Final they led 2-0 in games, the Blackhawks fell 3-2 at the Stadium. Hall of Fame Ambassadors Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito all participated, and all would prefer to divert discussion about that piercing memory.
A bounce here or a break there would have altered history, but hockey is the fastest sport, rife with mistakes and random incidents. That remains a constant. What has changed is the mutual admiration and confidence that management, labor and the public share in the Blackhawks’ new and vastly improved culture.
Even in 1971, players were not fully vested in policies of the executive branch, nor were fans. When Hull jumped to the World Hockey Association a year later, that detachment festered, as it did again in 1977, when the Blackhawks slipped into the playoffs, only to discover that they would be forced out of their own building. Can you fathom that happening under this regime?
That team was not very good, with only 26 victories in 80 starts. It wheezed to the wire, winning three of 16, including a loss in the regular-season finale against the Cleveland Barons—may they rest in peace. Still, the Blackhawks tiptoed into the playoffs, drawing the New York Islanders as a first round opponent.
Alas, someone up top with scant faith in or respect for the hockey tenants had booked Led Zeppelin for multiple Stadium concerts. Thus, the Blackhawks played a best-of-three set on the road. They lost, 5-2 and 2-1. The latter is officially listed as a “home” game, but it wasn’t. Not unless Cook County had moved to Nassau County. Players were furious, but not surprised. That series was part of a stretch during which the Blackhawks lost 16 straight playoff games, still a league record. Can you imagine that now?
Players with the modern-day Blackhawks are treated like kings, pardon the expression, and Sunday night skewered lofty plans, but not the framework of unity and commitment. If Jonathan Quick hadn’t stopped Brent Seabrook in Game 2 and prevented the Blackhawks from assuming a 3-0 lead, the Western Conference Final might have taken a sharp turn. One shot in two weeks. That’s hockey, baby. But the Blackhawks competed like the elites they are, and were the last team of 16 excused from the marathon.
The Kings did not leave their home state for two rounds, but still captured two Game 7s as visitors. Against the Blackhawks, they were resilient, resourceful and, overall, better. Darryl Sutter, their outstanding coach, scored two overtime goals for the Blackhawks within five days in 1985. His work ethic is contagious, and as exemplary defenseman Drew Doughty said, legs get tired, but not the heart.
The Blackhawks are right there, and will be again, because they’re gifted, deep and young. Their window is anything but closed, as compared with bygone Blackhawks, for whom the window never opened. Some of us remember when the Blackhawks had a better golf team than hockey team.
Nice guys, salt of the earth. They were just more accomplished at golf than hockey. Then there were all those kids who showed up at the Stadium and attached themselves to the locker room pool table. Did this wasteful trend compel scouts to delve into more homework and draft smarter? No, management did what management did in those days. The pool table was removed.
The Kings are favored to earn the Stanley Cup against the New York Rangers, who advanced largely because of Henrik Lundqvist, a dapper and debonair goalie who is said to own 60 suits. Don’t know about you, but I don’t own 60 of anything.
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