For the first time since 1979, the Stanley Cup Finals pits two Original Six teams against each other: the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins. The Bruins entered the postseason as the No. 4 seed in the East and are fresh off a sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins no one saw coming. The top-seeded Blackhawks just stomped out the defending champion Los Angeles Kings in five games.
What we have in front of us looks to be a tremendous Stanley Cup Finals. The 2010 champs vs. the 2011 champs. Two of the greatest sports cities in America. A pair of rejuvenated fanbases with recently exorcised demons who are definitely all-in on their hockey teams right now.
The atmosphere should be incredibly rowdy, the Twitter smack talk should be on point and the games seem guaranteed to give anyone invested a mild panic attack. You don't need to understand the Corsi ratings to dig what's going on here. Simply admire the beards, savor the intensity and try like hell to get the hook from "Chelsea Dagger" out of your head.
These Stanley Cup Finals should be great. That said, only one participant recently made Bill Simmons' daughter cry. With that in mind, here's a primer on the Chicago Blackhawks.
Where they came from
To fully appreciate the Blackhawks' recent success, to know what it means to have so much speed and talent wearing the Indian head sweater, you first must know what it was like in the days of "Dollar Bill" Wirtz. This was a man who seemed hellbent on killing hockey in Chicago. For decades, he completed this task with unimpeded success.
Bill Wirtz was the Blackhawks' owner for 41 years until he passed away in 2007. No one here is pouring whiskey on a dead man's grave; I'm sure he was a wonderful human being if you got to know him. But when it came to his day job, Wirtz set the standard for deadbeat owners in professional sports.
This was a man who never allowed the home games to be broadcast on TV. When he finally gave in, he tried to make them Pay-Per-View. Why? Because Bill Wirtz also owned the concession stands at Chicago Stadium and wouldn't dare stand for losing out on potential money he could be making at the gate.
The list of stars he chased out of town over money is endless: from franchise icons like Bobby Hull and Denis Savard to stud goalies Dominik Hasek and Ed Belfour, to beloved stars Jeremy Roenick and Chris Chelios. Bill Wirtz never met a dollar he didn't want to put in his pocket. In turn, he froze out an entire generation of hockey fans.
Who they are
The Blackhawks blitzed the NHL in 2010 to win their first Stanley Cup since 1961. But by the time Patrick Kane finally got past his hangover, half of his teammates had been traded.
The 'Hawks found themselves in salary cap hell after winning the Cup, largely thanks to a big free agent contract they rightfully handed out to Marian Hossa the summer before. The price of the Cup was that the team had to get rid of almost all of the depth that made them so special. Goalie Antti Niemi, playoff hero Dustin Byfuglien, forwards Andrew Ladd and Kris Versteeg were just a few of the players jettisoned after 2010. As a result, Chicago lost in the first round of the playoffs each of the last two years.
This season, the Blackhawks finally started to replenish their depth, and the results have been magnificent. Once the lockout was lifted, the 'Hawks went on a crazy run, going 24 straight games without a regulation loss. It was the third-longest streak of its kind and it made all sorts of folks take notice.
Sports Illustrated put the 'Hawks on the cover and proclaimed them as the team that saved hockey. As the Miami Heat were also running a winning streak to historic heights, the Blackhawks caught the attention of one LeBron James:
Hey Chicago Blackhawks, u guys are AWESOME!! #streaking— LeBron James (@KingJames) March 7, 2013
If you didn't use the occasion to daydream about how nasty LeBron would have been at hockey (or any sport, really) had he made it his full-time focus at a young age, you aren't doing it right.
The 'Hawks would eventually lose their streak against the worst team in the NHL, the Colorado Avalanche, but the rest of the regular season continued to go swimmingly. They won the Presidents' Trophy, proceeded to dispatch the Minnesota Wild in the first round and then hunkered down for an epic seven-game series with the hated Red Wings.
The 'Hawks would ultimately prevail, but I'm telling you: I've never seen the city so nervous. If these 'Hawks, the team all of Chicago thought would reach the Stanley Cup from the moment the streak began, happened to lose Game 7, let's just say I would have been worried sick for the physical and mental health of pretty much everyone I know.
Cast of Characters
- It's all about Patrick Kane.
The 24-year-old forward put the 'Hawks into the Stanley Cup Finals with three goals in the series-clinching Game 5 victory against the Kings. One million HAT TRICK KANE Facebook status updates were sent to heaven.
Here's what you need to know about Kane: on a team loaded with star forwards, there isn't a player who is more fun to watch than PK. There are times when the puck seems glued to his stick, when defenders twice the size of him can't take it away or knock him down. His playmaking and passing skills are remarkable and he finished fifth in the NHL during the regular season with 55 points in 47 games.
He also likes to party. A lot. After the 'Hawks were sent packing out of the first round of the playoffs against the Phoenix Coyotes last season, Kane was photographed decidedly less than sober milling around the campus of the University of Wisconsin. After an ugly altercation with a Buffalo cab driver in 2009, Chicago's patience was starting to wear thin with Kane. He was publicly shamed into hiding his face the rest of the offseason, apologizing to the team and its fans.
Is Patrick Kane a Sober Sally now? Hardly. But he's got his head on straight from the playoffs, and the Blackhawks are more formidable because of it.
- Jonathan Toews doesn't have Kane's on-ice style or budding off-ice alcoholism, but he's the unquestioned leader of the Blackhawks and their rightful captain. One problem: when your reputation is as highly regarded as Toews', you have to deliver in the playoffs. So far, the captain has just one postseason goal. Toews is by all accounts a wonderful two-way player, but if the Blackhawks run into trouble in the Stanley Cup Finals and he isn't producing, there will likely be plenty of criticism headed his way, fair or not.
- Like Mike Ditka, Phil Jackson and Ozzie Guillen before him, the Blackhawks are led by a man with a terrific mustache: Joel Quenneville. There's no playoff beard here, just one mean cookie duster.
- The breakout star of this postseason for the Blackhawks? That would be Bryan Bickell. The 27-year-old forward is tied for the team-high in playoff goals with eight. He's this team's Byfuglien in more ways than one: at 6'4, 233 pounds, he's the biggest player on the ice. He's also set to become a free agent after this season, and most think the 'Hawks will be hard-pressed to retain him.
- The Blackhawks rode a two-headed monster in net during the regular season of Corey Crawford and Ray Emery, but it's Crawford who has established himself as the team's No. 1 goalie in the playoffs. Crawford is on fire right now, saving 93.5 percent of all shots he's faced and helping the Blackhawks' penalty kill be the best of any team in the postseason. Conventional wisdom in hockey says you need a hot goaltender to advance in the playoffs, and the 'Hawks are fortunate Crawford has been up for the task thus far.
Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals is Wednesday night in Chicago. It should be fun.