PHILADELPHIA – With the Chicago Blackhawks’ 49-year Stanley Cup drought a part of history, the Toronto Maple Leafs are now on the clock.
Since last winning the NHL championship in 1967, the Maple Leafs have seen each of their Original Six brethren hoist the Cup as well as 11 expansion teams. Toronto now has the biggest gap between titles among teams that were around the last time the Maple Leafs won it.
Toronto, which hasn’t even qualified for the playoffs the past five seasons, will have a tough enough time just getting out of the Eastern Conference where powerhouses Washington and Pittsburgh reside. The Capitals and Penguins are built on the strength of young superstars and appear set to dominate for years.
Pittsburgh has already won the Stanley Cup and had another runner-up finish since Sidney Crosby came aboard, while the Capitals’ stunning first-round knockout by Montreal will surely rile up already excitable forward Alex Ovechkin once he gets back on the ice.
The biggest surprise of this post-season isn’t that the young Blackhawks rose up to win the Cup for the first time since 1961, it’s that neither the Penguins nor Capitals reached the Eastern Conference finals. There is so much balance and parity in that the seventh-seeded Philadelphia Flyers got on a run and nearly skated off with the Cup.
It wasn’t until the second-seeded Blackhawks picked them off with a 4-3 overtime road win in Game 6 that the surprising surge ended.
That is where the story of this hockey season ceased and the look toward the next campaign began. Chances are the Blackhawks will be making stabs at multiple championships instead of counting the years between few and far between titles.
“It’s pretty crazy,” Chicago forward Patrick Kane said. “You envision this and hope for the best when you first come in, but everything we’ve been through, it’s been obviously an unbelievable year. Very exciting. It’s fun to be a part of it right now.”
Kane, along with young captain Jonathan Toews, are the two biggest reasons the Blackhawks have been able to rise from the bottom portion of the NHL standings in 2007 to the top of the heap in just three years. Toews, an Olympic and Stanley Cup champion at age 22, was chosen with the No. 3 pick in the 2006 draft. Kane was taken No. 1 overall one year later.
The influx of veteran forwards such as now three-time Cup winner John Madden, who grew up in the title-conscious world of the New Jersey Devils, and Marian Hossa proved to be enough to get Chicago over the hump after it made a trip to the West finals last year.
The Blackhawks rolled through Nashville and Vancouver before taking their biggest step by sweeping top-seeded San Jose upon their return to hockey’s final four.
Madden beamed on the ice at the Wachovia Center on Wednesday night as he was surrounded by his family in the madness of the spontaneous celebration created by Kane’s overtime goal.
Usually intense and stern, Madden smiled and spoke glowingly about his young teammates that had never experienced this thrill before.
What amazed him the most was how quickly he was embraced upon arriving in Chicago and how interested the rest of the club was in hearing his stories of past glory.
“They are a bunch of young guys and they were all ears,” Madden said.
Now they have moments to share together, starting with Friday’s victory parade in the Windy City.
“It is a special time of the year, and a special couple of days,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “Having guys been there and done that helped stabilize the guys’ mindset.”
And what can be made of the Flyers?
They rode the wave of being a pre-season Cup contender to a club that lost its way and fell to the bottom of the East. Their drop cost coach John Stevens his job but led to the hiring of Peter Laviolette, a 2006 champion with the Carolina Hurricanes, who arguably did his best job behind the bench with this club.
Through precision tactics, a cool demeanour and with a keen flair to motivate, Laviolette spurred the Flyers to turn their season around. They did, and clinched a playoff spot on the final day with a shootout victory over the New York Rangers in an elimination game.
The defining moment for Philadelphia will be Laviolette’s timeout in Game 7 against Boston in the second round when the Flyers trailed 3-0 in the first period after winning three straight games to stay alive. He calmed the Flyers and inspired them to rally for a 4-3 victory that made them the third NHL team to finish off the most improbable of comebacks.
Philadelphia finished two wins short of ending its own title drought that began after the second of two straight Stanley Cup championships in 1975, and now questions abound.
Are the Flyers the team that made it to the Stanley Cup finals, or are they really the flawed bunch that finished seventh in the East? Was their run a product of a favourable draw that allowed them to avoid Washington and Pittsburgh, and is goalie Michael Leighton really good enough to make them a legit challenger to raise the Cup a year from now?
“It was a good learning experience for us,” captain Mike Richards said after admitting his pain and disappointment. “I mean, you have to take out of it what it takes to win. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough.
“We went through a lot this year as a group. I can’t analyze the season right now, but when you go through stuff like that, I think it brings the group closer together.”