CHICAGO – Jonathan Toews second-guessed everything after he and the Chicago Blackhawks bowed out of the Stanley Cup playoffs in the first round each of the past two years.
Winning it all in 2010 was little consolation.
“You start asking yourself so many questions of why you’re not having the same success,” Toews said. “It’s easy to ask yourself a lot of questions and spin your wheels a little bit.”
Shawn Thornton couldn’t bring himself to watch a single playoff game a year ago after he and the Boston Bruins were eliminated by the Washington Capitals in the first round.
“It’s too painful,” he said. “I remember the feeling of getting knocked out.”
Painful as those playoff exits were, the Blackhawks and Bruins are back in the Stanley Cup final in large part because of those stumbles. These are veteran teams armed with a wealth of experience that they used to come back from the brink of elimination to move within four victories of another title.
“I think you realize that anything can kind of happen,” Bruins centre Chris Kelly said. “I think this group has experienced a lot in such a short time. I think just playing how many Game 7s we’ve played and we’ve been fortunate enough to sweep a few teams and just knowing that it doesn’t matter what happened in the game before, it’s the next game regardless of if it’s a win or a loss.”
In the course of a game, players don’t think too much about the past. Leading scorer David Krejci knew the Bruins had 17 players back from the 2011 Cup team, but that wasn’t on his mind when they fell behind 4-1 the Toronto Maple Leafs with 11 minutes left in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarter-finals.
But in the locker-room, players are able to recall how they handled similar instances.
“You have that to rely on,” Thornton said. “You know that it can go either way, so it keeps your faith a little bit more in some situations, maybe. We’ve been on both sides of that coin: Losing being up 3-0 and winning coming back.”
Once his team made history by battling back against Toronto, coach Claude Julien saw the comeback play a major role in the Bruins’ run as they cruised past the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins. Even with a different goaltender in Tuukka Rask and a Los Angeles Kings championship occurring since their own triumph, the Bruins exude the confidence of defending champions.
“We’ve been through it,” Julien said. “You’ve got to hope that it’s going to help as far as the focus, knowing what it takes, maybe not being as nervous.”
Even as captain Zdeno Chara recommended approaching this final like the first one, defenceman Andrew Ference said there was more calm this time around. There aren’t the jitters that accompanied the Bruins in 2011 in Vancouver.
That has a lot to do with winning experience.
“We’ve had the same guys for a few years now, and minus a couple guys we’ve all pretty much won together,” Bruins forward Tyler Seguin said. “We know we’re a good team when we’re pretty much at an even-keel. Whether it’s a win or loss we’re staying with the same attitude.”
The Blackhawks didn’t find themselves in as precarious position as Boston, though they were still on the ropes as they trailed the Detroit Red Wings three games to one. Right-winger Patrick Kane said he and his teammates felt they owed the organization more than another early playoff defeat after this core group was kept together after losing to the Phoenix Coyotes last year.
An overtime victory in Game 7 showed the Blackhawks could come back from being almost done for the season. It might not have happened if this group didn’t learn from the high of winning in 2010 and the lows of losing early last season.
“I’m drawing on the experiences from 2010,” forward Patrick Sharp said. “I know that I’ve been here before, my teammates have been here before.”
Eight Blackhawks players remain from the Cup champions, the turnover a result of a salary-cap purge in the summer of 2010. Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien and Troy Brouwer have been replaced by the likes of Bryan Bickell, Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw. But with Toews, Kane, Sharp and defenceman Duncan Keith, Chicago hasa core that isn’t learning on the fly.
“Certainly the core group has matured to a nice level over the last four years,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “I think their experience is going to be beneficial for the guys who haven’t been there.”
Experience, like leadership, in an intangible asset that’s difficult to quantify.
“I don’t know if it gets you anything physically; I think mentally just knowing you’ve been in this situation before and maybe there’s a sense of calmness,” Keith said. “I’m going to try to use every bit of experience I can, whether that’s knowing the pressure that come with being in a final or just how hard it is to win.”
Disheartening defeats are part of the growth of any team that hopes to win multiple championships. It’s a necessary element.
“We know it’s so hard to even get to this point,” Chara said, “that you just got to do whatever it takes.”