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The Verdict: Despite loss, Hawks recall thrill of Canucks series

Monday, 05.02.2011 / 1:00 AM / The Verdict
By Bob Verdi  - Blackhawks Team Historian


As the Blackhawks scatter for summer wherever and their fans wait for spring to arrive here, let us pause to absorb how the team’s most valuable player all season described last Tuesday night’s crushing denouement in Vancouver.

“It was fun,” says Corey Crawford.

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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It was what? An overtime loss in Game 7 of a Stanley Cup playoff series suffered by the defending champions was fun? Being dethroned this April after running the table last June was fun? Is Crawford eccentric and loopy like a goalie is supposed to be?

On the contrary. He is quite normal, as is his remark. But let him continue.

“To lose a game like that is disappointing, of course,” Crawford goes on. “And it will stay with us for a while. But once you get past that and try to move on, you realize that’s what we all work for and dream of, to get into a position like that, to be involved in a game and a series like that.”

Indeed. We tend to forget that these are world-class athletes who regard intense competition as an essential food group and, in the end, the only fate worse than participating in a Game 7 and losing it is not to have participated at all. The rush they enjoyed from such an experience is reserved for only a precious few who are gifted enough to play professional sports, although the ancillary message is as clear as the 2-1 final score for the Canucks: if, as observers, you were not royally entertained, you should get a note from your doctor and seek a different hobby.

We are fast approaching the 40th anniversary—May 18, 1971—of perhaps the most excruciating outcome in franchise history. The Blackhawks won the first two games in a best-of-seven Stanley Cup final against the Montreal Canadiens and gained a 2-0 lead in Game 7 on a warm night in foggy Chicago Stadium. Ken Dryden, who was spectacular in goal for Les Habitants, could have been beaten for a third crucial score, but instead of another roar from a standing room only crowd, he heard the ping of a puck clanking off a post.

The Canadiens rallied to win, 3-2, and to this day, the Blackhawks who were in uniform that evening remember it vividly. Three of the team’s ambassadors were there. Tony Esposito, who rues the drive he missed off Jacques Lemaire, almost breaks out into a sweat when discussing the course of events. Bobby Hull muses about the chance he had to put the Canadiens away. Stan Mikita just shakes his head. It still hurts. But would any of them wish they had not partaken of that instant classic even before the term was coined? No way. That game epitomized sports at its optimum level. Painful to rectify, true, but impossible to forget.

How many times do play-by-play men sign off by saying, “we hope you enjoyed the broadcast, if not the result"? Last Tuesday night’s thrill theater certainly applies, and these Blackhawks will remember Alex Burrows’ clinching goal just as they will recall the collective groan that utterly enveloped Rogers Arena when Jonathan Toews went to his knees to pot a tying short-hander within the last two minutes of regulation. There was absolute fear in the building that the gritty visitors were about to pull off a miraculous comeback with their fourth straight victory. The Blackhawks were one bounce, one shift, away from accomplishing the unthinkable.

Alas, it wasn’t to be, and coach Joel Quenneville spoke for the vanquished the other day when he mentioned how the Blackhawks seemed so ready to move on, not to their cottages, but to San Jose. If only they could have gotten past Vancouver. They had seized momentum in the series, they were playing with house money, they were this close to putting the entire NHL on notice that the only team with a chance to repeat as champions was still viable. If only. That is the essence of sports. What now?

“I’m really excited about next season,” says Patrick Kane. That is not a bad way for a young superstar to talk, only hours after elimination. The Blackhawks have reason to be optimistic. For all the quality talent that departed because of the a salary cap, the roster was joined by Nick Leddy, Michael Frolik, Ben Smith, Bryan Bickell, Chris Campoli, Viktor Stalberg and, most significantly, Crawford. When the Blackhawks convene in September, there will be no question about the identity of the No. 1 goalkeeper.

“I’m confident, but not comfortable,” says Crawford, referring to his rookie resume, not his contract situation. That is of the highest priority, according to Vice President/General Manager Stan Bowman. They huddled Thursday, and there will be subsequent meetings with Gilles Lupien, the former Montreal defenseman who also represents Roberto Luongo. Rest assured that Crawford is not going anywhere, except home to Montreal for a rest. He waited his turn, overcame some frustrations about how long it took, and evolved into a rock of stability.

“The guys love to play in front of him, which is important,” said Stephane Waite, the Blackhawks’ goaltending coach. “I knew he would be ready. The years he spent in the minors, I told him he would be in the NHL. He used to get down on himself after a bad goal, but now, he’s better. He focuses on what’s next. Other players see that, feel that, and that spreads throughout the whole team. He’s so solid, technically and mentally. Great in the room, great on the ice. I’m not surprised. He’s got what it takes. He just needed the opportunity to show it when he got his chance. In the minors, you can get lazy. Corey, in the minors, he just wanted to get better.”

After last season, the Blackhawks retained their core players. Now, Corey Crawford is among them. He’s still recreating that Alex Burrows goal in his mind, and wondering how he could have stopped the puck. That’s what goalies do. But it still was fun, and so is thinking about seasons to come.