CHICAGO – If you want to see two of the most impressive hockey statues you’ll ever lay your eyes on, do yourself a favor and go to the United Center one of these days. Just outside of Gate 3 ½ - not to be confused with Platform 9 ¾ in the Harry Potter series – are beautiful statues of Blackhawk legends Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita.
Hull and Mikita were all-time greats, to be sure. But they won just one Stanley Cup at a time when it was a heck of a lot easier to win one than it is now. And as legendary as they are, neither was able to do what the current group of Blackhawks has the chance to do Monday night. The Blackhawks have not won the Stanley Cup on home ice since 1938. Not a single player on the Blackhawks or the Toronto Maple Leafs who played that night is alive, and anyone who might have been in attendance as a child would be well into his or her 80s today.
It will be difficult for that not to be on the minds of the Blackhawks, who have the opportunity to give the people of Chicago their first championship on home ice in 77 years. And given the fact the Blackhawks are now 37-11 in Games 4 through 7 of their playoff series since 2010, including Saturday night’s 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 5 of the final, odds are pretty good of that happening.
But nobody is getting ahead of himself, even Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz. “Anything can happen,” Wirtz told thn.com on his way out of the Amalie Arena, “but it has been a long time between drinks, that’s for sure.”
Backup goalie Scott Darling grew up in suburban Chicago with a family of Blackhawk lovers who had nary a notion of what a Blackhawk championship looked like until five years ago. “I’m sure they’d take it either way,” Darling said, “but I’m also sure it would be a real special experience to do it in Chicago. What more could it be? That’s it. That’s the pinnacle of what you’re trying to do.”
Hockey players are by nature, hugely superstitious and generally loathe to look ahead more than one second. That would explain why Patrick Sharp, Corey Crawford and Antoine Vermette – the three Blackhawks who took to the podium after the victory – looked more like they were on death row than one win away from a championship. None of them was about to project too far ahead for fear of giving their opponent anything to post on its dressing room corkboard.
“The buzz will be off the charts,” was all Blackhawk coach Joel Quenneville would allow himself.
But Sharp, who began his career as a Blackhawk at a time when he couldn’t even give away free tickets, then helped the organization back to respectability, then two Stanley Cups, has a pretty good idea of how exciting the prospect is of winning on home ice.
“We’ll talk about that if it happens on Monday night,” Sharp said. “But I can tell you that our fans back in Chicago are extremely passionate. You guys have been in the city throughout the series. You see the red jerseys. You see the support we have behind us. The United Center is a big building, we pack it every night, whether it’s a pre-season game, playoff game. Can’t wait to get back there, use that energy. I know it filters down through the team. As these guys mentioned earlier, we’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves. Enjoy the process.”
The process has unfolded pretty much as it has in the past for the Blackhawks. They generally get stronger as the series goes along and this one is no exception. Patrick Kane was trying to explain it the morning of Game 5 and he couldn’t really come up with one. “More than anything, I think we play our best when our backs are against the wall,” he said. “We kind of need those must-win games. For whatever reason, we don’t do that in the beginning of series. I don’t know.”
The Blackhawks, when you think of it, are a lot like the Los Angeles Kings that way. And perhaps that’s the kind of team you need to win a Stanley Cup these days. They have an uncanny ability to play well enough to just win games, nothing more. In fact, of the 11 wins the Hawks have registered in their three trips to the Stanley Cup final, they’ve only won two of those games by more than one goal. And Saturday night represented just the second time in NHL history that the first five games of the final have been decided by one goal. (The last time was 1951 when Bill Barilko scored the overtime winner in Game 5 for the Maple Leafs over the Montreal Canadiens, then perished in a plane crash that summer. He was on a fishing trip. Just ask the Tragically Hip.)
This series has been memorable so far, not for all great reasons. Actually, it has been downright strange at times. The scoring stars have generally gone silent, replaced by players such as Cedric Paquette and Vermette and a host of other third liners. There have been parts of the series where one team has taken control, but it has largely been void of the back-and-forth brilliance you’d expect to see from the two best teams in the league. Vermette, who has been a healthy scratch three times in these playoffs, took his turn as the hero in Game 5, scoring the winning goal.
“He’s got better every game,” Quenneville said of Vermette. “I thought he had a great game tonight. Very timely goal. Big faceoffs in both zones tonight. Lot of wins. Positionally aware. I thought (Kris Versteeg) had a great game as well. That line was very dangerous.”
Adding another layer to the weirdness of this final was Chicago’s first goal on the evening, which came when Tampa goalie Ben Bishop came out to play the puck and collided with defenseman Victor Hedman, leaving Sharp with a gimme into an empty net. Not long after, Crawford gagged up the puck and was almost scored on by Nikita Kucherov, who then fell into the net and had to leave the game.
“In a series where goals are at a premium, it’s tough when you lose one of your guys,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said of Kucherov. “Naturally, losing a guy like Kuch, you don’t want to lose guys like that.”
The Blackhawks find themselves in a familiar place, with a chance to win the Stanley Cup in Game 6. But the Lightning also finds itself in familiar territory, going down 3-2 to both the Detroit Red Wings in the first round of the playoffs before storming back to win the series. They also needed to win Game 7 in New York to advance to the final.
“The look in their eye after this game, there wasn’t head hanging,” Cooper said. “They were ticked off. You know, it’s not the first time we’ve blown a situation here at home, gone on the road and dug our heels in. We’ve done this all playoffs long. Those guys know what they’re doing. If I’m going to be behind a bench and want a team in this playoffs, it’s this one right here. We’re looking forward to Game 6.”
GAME 5 THREE STARS
1. Antoine Vermette (Chicago): Scored the decisive goal and went 8-3 in the faceoff circle.
2. Corey Crawford (Chicago): It wasn't a masterpiece, but he stopped 31 of 32 shots.
3. Niklas Hjalmarsson (Chicago): Played almost as much as Duncan Keith and managed to block seven Lightning shots.