Nicholas J. Cotsonika
CHICAGO — To understand why the Chicago Blackhawks have become a modern-day dynasty, listen to what happened Monday night moments after they beat the Tampa Bay Lightning, 2-0, and won their third Stanley Cup in six years.
The Blackhawks had clinched a championship on home ice for the first time since 1938. The city was celebrating from living rooms to local bars to the United Center itself. The fans were roaring, the players embracing, and amid it all, general manager Stan Bowman found winger Brandon Saad.
The ’Hawks drafted Saad in the second round in 2011, a year after they won the first Cup of this run. He chipped in as they won the Cup in 2013, developed into a top-six forward last season and played a major role in this Cup. Now he’s 22 and a pending restricted free agent – a tempting target for an offer sheet from another team in the salary-cap system.
“I said, ‘This is the first of many. We’re going to win a lot together,’ ” Bowman said with a smile on his face and championship cap on his head. “He gave me a big hug and said, ‘Let’s go.’ He’s going to be here. I don’t think he would want to leave after this scene here.”
It takes management and scouting and coaching.
TAMPA — We’re so eager to use the word “dynasty.” Too eager. Entering the Stanley Cup Final, some actually anointed the Tampa Bay Lightning as a potential dynasty, even though this group hadn’t won one championship, let alone two.
But here are the Chicago Blackhawks, one win from earning the title – or at least redefining it for the modern era. With a 2-1 victory Saturday night, they took a 3-2 series lead. They can win their third Cup in six years on Monday night in Chicago.
“We understand,” said Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, “how unique this group is and how unique this chance is.”
No, the Blackhawks are not the Montreal Canadiens of the 1970s. They are not the New York Islanders or Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s.
But this is not the NHL of those days, either. This is the NHL of the salary cap, a league of parity – a league so competitive that the Blackhawks’ biggest foils, the Los Angeles Kings, winners of two of the past three Cups, didn’t even make the playoffs this season.
The Blackhawks won the Cup in 2010. They had to part with half their roster because of cap problems. They kept their core and rebuilt their supporting cast, and they won the Cup again in 2013.
CHICAGO — Through 20 minutes, they had two shots. Through 25 minutes, they had three. The Chicago Blackhawks have so much star power – Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and company – but they couldn’t take advantage of the fact the Tampa Bay Lightning had started a 20-year-old rookie in net. The kid hardly had to make any saves.
“That was probably our worst game in a while, for whatever reason,” said veteran center Brad Richards. “We really wanted it, but we just kept getting in each other’s way.”
Yet in the end Wednesday night, the Blackhawks won, 2-1, and tied the Stanley Cup Final, 2-2. This was an uneven game, and this has been an uneven series – dull, then exciting; tight, then up-and-down. But for four full games these teams have been tied or separated by a goal, and this one wasn’t over until Chicago goaltender Corey Crawford survived a Tampa Bay flurry in the final minute. We know we have two talented, worthy teams. That’s about it. We have no idea what’s going to happen game to game or even period to period.
“I know everybody talks about how offensive they are,” Richards said. “But that’s the tightest-checking team we’ve played all year.”
Bolts beat Blackhawks in Game 2 after 20-year-old rookie Andrei Vasilevskiy replaces starter Ben Bishop
TAMPA — The Tampa Bay Lightning had beaten the Chicago Blackhawks, 4-3. They had tied the Stanley Cup Final, 1-1. But goaltender Ben Bishop had left the game twice in the third period and was unavailable to reporters because he was receiving “treatment,” according to a team spokesman. So out walked Andrei Vasilevskiy, a well-regarded prospect but a 20-year-old kid.
Vasilevskiy was a relative footnote Saturday night amid the speed and skill and scoring chances and lead changes and controversy. He appeared in only his 19th NHL game, appeared in only his third NHL playoff game and played only nine minutes and 13 seconds – 1:32 after Bishop left the first time and the final 7:41 after Bishop left again. He became the answer to a trivia question as the first goaltender since 1928 to earn his first NHL playoff win in relief in the Cup final.
But the spotlight shines on him now, even if the Bolts try to shelter him.
“No cameras!” a team spokesman shouted.
“Nervous?” Vasilevskiy said, wrinkling his nose and shaking his head. “Just maybe little bit, but after the first couple shots, I feel myself better. Every game I’m just ready. I keep my head ready for game, and that’s it.”
TAMPA — “Safe is death.” That was the team motto when the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2004, and that was the lesson when the Bolts returned to the final Wednesday night.
They had Game 1. They had a 1-0 lead in the third period, anyway. But they failed to extend it and sat back too much. They gave up two goals in a span of less than two minutes and lost to the Chicago Blackhawks, 2-1.
“For whatever reason, whether it was we were a little nervous or anxious …” said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, his voice trailing off as he stroked his playoff beard and searched for the right words. “We played a good game. It just …”
“You can’t sit back and just give them the puck, especially a team like that,” he said. “Maybe you can get away with it with a team that’s not as skilled, a team that’s not as confident in these situations.”
But the fact remains that the Bolts had a 36-31 edge in shot attempts through two periods, and in the third, they had nine while the Blackhawks had 21. Had they held on to win, they would have been a little lucky. In hockey, there is a greater chance bad stuff will happen if you don’t have the puck.
And that would haunt them.
CHICAGO — Duncan Keith never had size. Growing up, he was told he was too small to make the NHL, let alone excel in the NHL. After the Chicago Blackhawks drafted him in the second round in 2002, he needed three years in college, junior and the minors to grow.
What he always had, though, was talent and attitude. He’ll show you. He’ll outwork everyone off the ice so he can outplay everyone on it. He’ll never be satisfied.
“I’ve always taken pride in working out and training,” Keith said. “When I was younger, I was never a big guy. I’m still not the biggest guy. It’s a way to try and maybe even the playing field in some ways. I’m smaller, so try to use everything I can to my advantage.”
Now listed at all of 192 pounds at age 31, Keith has won two Olympic gold medals, two Stanley Cups and two Norris Trophies as the NHL’s best defenseman – and might be on the verge of more.
In a 5-2 victory over the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday night that forced a Game 7 in the Western Conference final, he set up three straight goals in the second period and saved a would-be tying goal in the third.
Keith won’t beat you by beating you up. But he’ll beat you with his head, hands and heart.
Antoine Vermette goes from healthy scratch to playoff hero as Blackhawks beat Ducks in double-OT thrill ride
CHICAGO — Thursday night, Antoine Vermette was a healthy scratch. He was 32 years old, a veteran of 68 NHL playoff games, a player the Chicago Blackhawks acquired for a prospect and a first-round pick at the trade deadline. But he hadn’t scored in eight straight games, and coming off a triple-overtime epic, coach Joel Quenneville wanted fresh legs in the lineup.
So Vermette spent Game 3 of the Western Conference final in the dressing room, riding a bike, lifting weights. He watched on television as his teammates lost to the Anaheim Ducks without him.
“The emotion, I mean, it’s not a pleasant one,” Vermette said. “Like anybody else on this team, you want to be part of the team. You think you can help the team.”
Saturday night, Vermette helped the team all right. He returned to the lineup, and though he played only 17:56, second-least among Chicago forwards, he ended up making the difference 5:37 into double overtime.
“That was a huge, huge goal. Huge.”
The Blackhawks were on the brink of a 3-1 series deficit. Instead, this thing is tied, 2-2. It’s going six games. At least.
It’s fun to watch, as long as you aren’t riding a bike and lifting weights in the dressing room.
CHICAGO – Gary Bettman is a lawyer. Too often he speaks like a lawyer when he should speak as a leader. Thursday was one of those times.
The commissioner of the National Hockey League held an informal media scrum during the first intermission of Game 3 of the Western Conference final between the Anaheim Ducks and the Chicago Blackhawks. He stood at the back of the press box, surrounded by reporters, and answered questions about subjects like the salary cap.
Then he made a comment about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which Boston University researchers describe as a “progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head.”
“From a medical science standpoint, there is no evidence yet that one necessarily leads to the other,” Bettman said amid the noise of the United Center. “I know there are a lot of theories, but if you ask people who study it, they tell you there is no statistical correlation that can definitively make that conclusion.”
CHICAGO — It was Game 3. It felt like Game 4.
The Anaheim Ducks and the Chicago Blackhawks played one hundred sixteen minutes and twelve seconds of playoff hockey in a triple-overtime thriller Tuesday night. They did what they could to recover – fluids, cold tubs, massages, pillows, blankets. Still, they flew four hours from California to Illinois and played again Thursday night.
Man, it was a slog, a test of body and mind.
“It was more of a mental battle for everyone tonight,” said Ducks center Andrew Cogliano, who compared it to playing after a hard weight workout. “You basically played two games, and it’s pretty tough. I think both teams were tired. You could tell. I think the pace wasn’t as high. But I think it was a character win.”
The Ducks earned a 2-1 victory and 2-1 lead in the Western Conference final, and it was about resiliency and survival more than anything else. They were on the wrong end of that triple-OT thriller Tuesday night. For them, it was heartbreaking when Marcus Kruger finally put the puck in the net. Had a bounce gone their way, they would’ve had a 2-0 series lead. Instead, it was 1-1.
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Now we find out how great Mike Babcock really is.
Now Mike Babcock finds out how great he really is.
He took the money: reportedly $50 million over eight years. He took on perhaps the biggest challenge in hockey: turning around the Toronto Maple Leafs. Even if he is the best coach in the NHL, is he worth more than twice as much as anyone else? Can he win with a roster full of holes? Can he remain patient through the rebuild? Can he put up with the BS in the Centre of the Hockey Universe? Can he get the job done?
This is boom or bust. If he succeeds and the Leafs win the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1967, ending the longest drought in the NHL in one of the most passionate hockey markets on the planet, he will be a legend. We’ll rave about his ability and belief in himself. If he fails, he will be the latest in a long line of big-money, big-name disappointments. Maybe we’ll say even Mike Babcock couldn’t win in Toronto, or maybe we’ll talk about his ego and hubris.
But this is what he’s all about.
“The consulting job offered a lot more money, greater stability and a clearer career path,” Babcock wrote in his book. “Ultimately, I chose to take a risk.”