As commissioner Gary Bettman addressed the crowd Monday night at United Center, he spoke a word that has not been associated with the NHL in a long, long time. “Well, Chicago,” Bettman said, “that’s three Cups in six seasons. I’d say you have a dynasty.”
The Blackhawks clinched this championship — also their second in three years — with a 2-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning. As it had in 2010 and again in 2013, Chicago needed six games to finish the job in the Stanley Cup Final. But unlike their two previous championships in this run, the Blackhawks did not need a shocking, dramatic finish to pull Game 6 out of the fire. Workhorse defenseman Duncan Keith, who logged 30:19 of ice time, erased what little suspense there was about who would be named MVP of the playoffs by following up his own shot and knocking in the rebound for the lead in the second period. On a 3-on-2 break in the third, Brad Richards looked toward goal as if to shoot and made a perfect pass across the slot to Patrick Kane, who fired it into a wide-open net for the insurance goal. Corey Crawford, in a last-ditch effort to unseat Keith as Conn Smythe Trophy winner, made 25 saves for the shutout.
Kane gave Chicago the only two-goal lead for either team in the series, as this title set came up just 5:14 short of being the first Stanley Cup Final without a single multi-goal lead. As it was, Game 6 turned out to be the only game of the series that did not have the winning goal break a tie in the third period. None of the six games went to overtime, but Tampa Bay-Chicago was a closely contested series nonetheless.
Tampa Bay’s top scoring threat, Steven Stamkos, hit the crossbar with a shot in the first period, which was scoreless despite the Blackhawks’ huge 13-4 edge in shots on goal. The Lightning came out flying at the start of the second period, a stretch during which Stamkos was again frustrated; a pass sent him skating in alone on Crawford, but he couldn’t lift the shot over the goalie’s leg pad because the puck was rolling on its edge. Chicago went more than 10 minutes without a shot on goal as Tampa Bay kept applying the pressure.
Take this scenario and apply it to another team and it likely would lead to defeat. If the Islanders, for example, failed to finish their scoring chances in the first period and allowed their opponents to buzz around the Isles’ net in the second, I’d be worried. Not with these Blackhawks. At no time during Tampa Bay’s push did I think Chicago would lose. And with Tampa Bay looking to make a line change as the second period neared its conclusion, the Blackhawks pounced. Richards passed through center ice to Kane, who passed to Keith, who fired a shot as he streaked into the zone, then beat Tampa Bay’s Cedric Paquette to the rebound and knocked it past goalie Ben Bishop.
In Game 6 of the 2010 Stanley Cup Final at Philadelphia, Kane clinched the ’Hawks Cup with a stunning overtime winner that went over the goal line but disappeared from view under the base of the net — the red light did not go on, and Kane danced around as if he were the only person in the building who realized he had scored. Against Tampa Bay, however, Kane’s goal was much easier to see, and it prompted the crowd of 22,424 to start the celebration. For the first time since 1938, the Blackhawks were winning the Stanley Cup in front of their own fans.
The Blackhawks have been around since 1926, and this current period must rank as the most successful era the club has ever enjoyed. Three of the franchise’s six NHL championships have come in the last six seasons. Bobby Hull was feared for his powerful slap shot and — helped by teammate Stan Mikita — had five 50-goal seasons for Chicago. But the era of Hull and Mikita, which began in the final years of the NHL’s “Original Six” period, brought only one Stanley Cup party to Chicago. After winning the Cup in 1961, the Black Hawks (two words back then) endured a series of disappointments, losing Stanley Cup Finals in 1962, ’65, ’71 and ’73. Of the four, the hardest defeat to swallow had to be the ’71 Final — they led the series against the underdog Canadiens 3-2 before losing Game 6 in Montreal and Game 7 in Chicago. The Blackhawks of Jeremy Roenick and Ed Belfour had some good years, too, but their only appearance in a Cup Final resulted in a four-game sweep for Pittsburgh in 1992.
Now those difficult times are merely steps the Blackhawks had to take in their climb to hockey’s pinnacle.
Much of the credit for building the Chicago machine belongs to general manager Stan Bowman. Born in Montreal when his father — the legendary Scotty Bowman — was coaching the Canadiens’ dynasty of the 1970s, Stan in 2010 became the youngest GM to put together a Stanley Cup-winning team. The 1995 graduate of Notre Dame joined the Blackhawks’ organization in 2000 as special assistant to the general manager, and the rise of his team has paralleled his ascendancy up the decision-making ladder.
The Blackhawks’ website acclaims Bowman as “the first GM to win two titles in the salary cap era.” He has done this by avoiding sentimental attachments and correctly assessing which players are must-haves and which are expendable.
When the Blackhawks won the Cup in 2010, Antti Niemi was their goaltender. But the playoff hero from Finland became a free agent soon thereafter, and Blackhawks management allowed him to sign with the San Jose Sharks that September. It must have been difficult to part with the goalie who ended Chicago’s 49-year Stanley Cup drought, especially since Niemi was just 26 years old at the time. But Bowman saw potential in Crawford, who played only one game in 2009-10 but took over as the ’Hawks’ starting goalie the following season.
Forwards Troy Brouwer and Andrew Ladd and defensemen Dustin Byfuglien and Brian Campbell also played roles during Chicago’s 2010 title run — and all of them were traded. Brouwer’s size and toughness fit the Washington Capitals’ physical style of play. Ladd and Byfuglien (traded by Chicago in separate deals a week apart) have remained teammates through stops in Atlanta and Winnipeg, as the Thrashers relocated and became the Jets. Campbell won the Lady Byng Trophy as a veteran All-Star for the Florida Panthers.
All quality players, yet within three weeks of the ticker-tape parade in Chicago, none of them were Blackhawks anymore.
Three years later, when the playoffs went deeper into June because of the lockout, Bowman had even less time to determine who should stay and who should go. In Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final at Boston, Bryan Bickell scored the tying goal with Crawford pulled for an extra attacker and Dave Bolland scored the winner just 17 seconds later. In a stunning turn of events, the scenario went from headed to Chicago for Game 7, to headed for overtime, to the Blackhawks have won the championship.
That was June 24. On June 30 — less than a week after scoring a Stanley Cup-winning goal — Bolland was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
It sounds cold and impersonal, but such is life as an NHL general manager in a salary-cap system. Builders of past NHL dynasties, such as Bill Torrey of the four-time champion 1980s Islanders, didn’t face such collectively bargained financial restrictions.
“We were like, ‘Boy, we could stay here forever and keep this thing going,’ ” Islanders great Bryan Trottier told NHL.com. “The trend now is free agency, movement, the salary cap, and Chicago has been capable of keeping it together.”
Mere days before the regular season started last October, Bowman sent defenseman Nick Leddy to the Islanders for three prospects in what was clearly a salary dump. With Keith, two-time champion Johnny Oduya and three-time champions Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson, Bowman knew his blue-line crew would be strong even without Leddy, who had been a key player during the 2013 Cup run. The Islanders signed Leddy to a seven-year, $38.5 million contract in February, preventing the 24-year-old from becoming a free agent this summer. Bowman couldn’t match those numbers, but taking Leddy off the payroll made it easier for the Blackhawks to absorb the twin eight-year extensions given last July to star forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, each of whom earns $10.5 million per season.
One thing Bowman has not changed is his man behind the bench. Now Joel Quenneville has more championships as a coach than Mario Lemieux won as a player.
“It’s the greatest feeling in the world,” Quenneville said. “Once you do it once, you can’t wait to do it again.”
Only Scotty Bowman (1,244) and Islanders dynasty coach Al Arbour (782) have more regular-season coaching wins than Quenneville (754). So the Blackhawks have Toews and Kane, a clutch goalie in Crawford, a Hall of Fame-bound coach, and a set of four tireless defensemen who can do the work of six. Chicago has so much depth on its forward lines that Bickell, a Cup hero in the 2013 finale, was a healthy scratch for Game 6 against Tampa Bay.
This is the greatest era in Chicago’s hockey history — an era when the commissioner isn’t the only mover and shaker proclaiming the Blackhawks a dynasty. Two days after the Cup clincher, in announcing a parade that has become a biennial event in the Windy City, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel joined the chorus.
“The City of Chicago is so proud of the Blackhawks,” he said, “which is why we are going to throw them a celebration that only Chicago can throw, a celebration worthy of a hockey dynasty.”
Filed June 16, 2015, updated June 17, 2015
Sources: Total Stanley Cup: The Official Encyclopedia of the Stanley Cup; The Associated Press; Hockey Hall of Fame; hockey-reference.com; NHL.com; NBC Sports.