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The Verdict: Hawks must play with desperation to dispose of Flyers

Monday, 06.07.2010 / 5:04 PM / The Verdict
By Bob Verdi  - Blackhawks Team Historian
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The Verdict: Hawks must play with desperation to dispose of Flyers

Did I hear that correctly? A Philadelphia radio personality went on the air the other day and said it’s been too long between parades? The Flyers haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1975, and their fans deserve for this drought to end?

Hold onto your hoagie, my friend. Have you seen the highlights from the last Blackhawks’ championship in 1961? The black and white low definition film with all that grain and Bobby Hull sporting the No. 16 sweater? With not a helmet in sight and goalies wearing protective gear that looks no thicker than a leisure suit? I know the movie is a talkie, because there is audio, but I’m not sure that’s NHL president Clarence Campbell congratulating the Blackhawks at center ice in Detroit’s Olympia. Considering the vintage of the video, it could be Buster Keaton.

Since the Flyers were formed in 1967, they’ve been to eight finals, winning twice. The Blackhawks have been to three, losing all of them, in 1971, 1973 and 1992. Before the Flyers were born, the Blackhawks were in the 1962 and 1965 finals, and lost both of those too. That doesn’t quite encroach on the legacy of the Cubs, who won their last World Series in 1908 and have been to seven since with perfectly imperfect results.

Still, the Blackhawks carry like unchecked baggage this onerous millstone in need of a remedial milestone—49 years without a title, the driest of spells in the NHL.

Hockey is a game of mistakes, as local fans can attest, and the worst mistake these Blackhawks can make now is to think they have two chances to dispose of the Flyers, who will be as desperate to force a Game 7 here Friday night as the Blackhawks must be to avoid it when they visit the Wachovia Center Wednesday night.

THE VERDICT

Team historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. Verdi authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001.

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If you want to wipe that smile off Hull’s face, mention 1971. Or Tony Esposito’s face, or Stan Mikita’s or Cliff Koroll’s. The Blackhawks won the first two games of the finals at home against the Montreal Canadiens, but dropped all three in the Forum before returning to the Stadium for Game 7, a May 18 that was so warm a fog hung above the rink.

CBS cleared a weeknight slot and the Blackhawks roared to a 2-0 lead. They had a spate of chances to make it 3-0, but a bounce here and a crossbar there befriended Ken Dryden, the Montreal goalie who would wind up winning a Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player in the playoffs before claiming the Calder Trophy as best rookie.

Jacques Lemaire beat Esposito from a distance, and Henri Richard registered the tie-breaker from in close and the Canadiens won, 3-2, a stunning turnaround that still haunts the Blackhawks who participated and the customers who witnessed. These Flyers do not possess the luster of that Montreal team, but they have a lot of heart and a lot of hair and at this point in their harried season they could imagine they are playing with house money while pressure is on the Blackhawks.

But this notion that the Flyers as a No. 7 seed are destined to play down to that level is fraught with peril. The Blackhawks were on fire in Game 5, and still they surrendered four goals to a foe that clings like lint.

Coach Joel Quenneville and his staff surely will remind Blackhawk players that the Flyers did not get this far by being hospitable, malleable or indifferent. Quenneville boldly rearranged his lines Sunday night, but it is not as though he was forcing square pegs into round holes. The Blackhawks are deep, probably more talented than the Flyers. But there is a certain wherewithal about this Philadelphia roster, a distinct passion and survival instinct that has been nurtured through two months of near misses.

The longer the Flyers exist, the better they like their chances of grinding down an opponent. Sunday’s defeat was their first in four series after a Game 4. This is not a coincidence. The Blackhawks knew this final would not be easy, but the hunch is they did not foresee it being this difficult.

The league, NBC, Hockey Night in Canada, all of Philadelphia and much of New Jersey would embrace a Game 7 in a series that has been compelling. TV ratings are strong, and not just because two American mega-markets are involved. The product has been excellent, a worthy advertisement for a sport that is upwardly mobile. There is no path in professional athletics as rife with trap doors as the journey to a Stanley Cup, and if you need confirmation, consult Marian Hossa, who was with the Detroit Red Wings last year when they were one victory away from a championship until the Pittsburgh Penguins intervened.

Chris Pronger, the Flyers’ cross-checking chairman, had a frightful Game 5. He was on for six goals, doing time for a seventh and absorbed a few hits for a change. But his presence represents another message. How can a defenseman who is so important be logging all those minutes for his fifth franchise? He’s going to the Hall of Fame. Why would any team let him go? It’s largely because of the NHL economy, a hard salary cap that fosters hard decisions.

The 1971 Blackhawks who came so close to a Stanley Cup thought their time would come. They were loaded with ability, and there was no salary cap. But they were guaranteed no championships, achieved none, and in a matter of only a few years, their cupboard was empty, as was the Stadium.

These 2010 Blackhawks, one win from one goal, would cherish hoisting that Stanley Cup before adoring United Center fans Friday night. But a safer plan is this: put the Flyers away in their own building Wednesday night. Then, who knows? Could a Stanley Cup fit into Wrigley Field Friday afternoon before the Cubs and White Sox play?

Might be a fun way for the boys of winter to start their summer.