PHILADELPHIA – The goal that won the Stanley Cup was everything and nothing like the goal that won the Olympics. There was no horn Wednesday night to signify the silver chalice was heading somewhere it hadn't been in nearly half a century, no red bulb dancing in circles around a lamp to let the world know puck slid past keeper. There was, however, a wunderkind celebrating a goal from an impossible angle, and the resemblance was eerie enough to overshadow the other details.
Patrick Kane(notes) witnessed the first one, Sidney Crosby's(notes) golden goal for Team Canada, and owns a silver medal because of it. Kane scored the second one, 4:10 into overtime of Game 6, and found himself skating around the Wachovia Center with the greatest trophy in professional sports because of it. His Chicago Blackhawks, young, talented and precocious, a cocktail of personalities with just the right mixture of sweet, sour and bitter, beat the Philadelphia Flyers 4-3 to become NHL champions and defeated the weight of the franchise's history by a much greater margin.
The last Blackhawks title came in 1961. They were the punching bag of the Original Six, doomed to futility by poor ownership. That changed with Kane, with Jonathan Toews(notes) and Marian Hossa(notes) and Antti Niemi(notes) and Duncan Keith(notes), with a shift in culture that forgot the past, celebrated the present and set the stage for the goal no one thought was a goal.
“I was the only one who knew it was in," Kane said. “Unbelievable."
He had head faked along the left boards to free himself of Kimmo Timonen(notes), dipped toward Flyers goalie Michael Leighton(notes) and slipped a perfect wrist shot toward the far post. Only when Kane dashed toward center ice screaming did the Blackhawks catch on: He really scored, and they were really about to hoist the Stanley Cup.
“We were just hoping to God that Kaner was right, and he seemed pretty sure the puck did go in," said Toews, the Blackhawks' captain. “So we took his word for it. It was awesome. Doesn't matter how it happened, whether we were at home or in this barn, quiet or loud. It's the best feeling in the world."
For Kane, it felt best because it meant redemption. Everybody believed in him again. Less than a year ago, he allegedly beat up a cab driver who couldn't present proper change when given $15 on a $13.80 fare. Kane pleaded guilty to a bargained-down disorderly conduct charge. Then came the Olympic disappointment, an underdog United States team forcing overtime only to see Crosby – the reigning NHL champion, too – end the Vancouver Games by beating Ryan Miller(notes).
Kane grew his hair into a mullet – "Take one last look," he noted, before allowing that "it might stay" – and scored 10 goals with 18 assists in Chicago's 22 games. While it took Crosby four seasons to win a title after being the No. 1 overall pick, Kane did it in three.
“That," Toews said, “is a special goal he's going to remember for the rest of his life."
He's not the only one.
Jonathan Toews did the same thing for Kane's goal that he did for Crosby's: skate as fast as he could to the pile and start celebrating. Toews was named the Olympics' Best Forward as a center on the gold medal-winning Team Canada, and he was named the Conn Smythe winner as the playoff MVP of the Stanley Cup-winning Blackhawks, who he happens to captain as well. So Toews also received the honor of carrying the Cup from end to end as Blackhawks fans here feted him and those at home sainted him.
To have a better year in hockey than Toews did this season would be almost impossible. He has reached the sport's two pinnacles – “They're 1a. and 1a.," Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook(notes) said – by age 22.
“He's going to go down as one of the best all-time," Kane said. “It's fun to see him work every day."
Toews’ work encompasses a number of areas. It's not just the points, a playoff-runner-up 29. He earns his captaincy with the kind of plan he hatched before Game 6.
Marian Hossa deserves this. That's what everyone said. The cynics wanted to believe this was his fault, that there really was some sort of a Hossa Hex, that he made teams good enough to go to the Stanley Cup Finals only to lose. Happened two years ago with Pittsburgh. Happened last year with Detroit. And here he was again, in a Blackhawks uniform, a curse waiting to happen.
Dammit, he deserves this, and so Toews got together with Keith and Patrick Sharp(notes), his alternate captains, and agreed that if the Blackhawks won the Cup, Hossa would be the second person to carry it.
“He deserves it," Toews said. “I can't imagine going three Stanley Cup Finals in a row. That's three incredibly long seasons. But I'm sure it's as sweet as ever for him."
Yes. Yes it was.
“I'm so glad this is over and I'm on the winning side," Hossa said.
He relished it.
“What a feeling," Hossa said. “A beautiful feeling. I'm so happy I finally won it."
He reflected on it.
“Lots of disappointment the last three years," Hossa said. “Going three times in a row, two times losing, and I was just hoping this was going to be the time."
He pointed to the Blackhawks logo.
“This is good luck," Hossa said.
In 1998, with the Portland Winter Hawks of the Western Hockey League, Hossa won a championship. He hadn't won anything since. He is 31. A dozen years seems like a hundred.
Had the Flyers won Game 6, it might've felt like eternity. The Blackhawks led 3-2 in the third period. Philadelphia wasn't mustering much. The Cup was all but won. Then a puck kicked off Hossa – of course – and past Niemi and it was 3-3. He was primed to be the goat again.
And then something happened. The goalie's face got in the way.
The Flyers were pushing, closer and closer, fiercer and fiercer, and Antti Niemi wouldn't budge. He is a first-year NHLer. First-year NHLers do not act like this. They cower and they fold. Undrafted rookies especially don't act like this. Hockey scouts scour the world for the best talent, especially for the best goalies, and they don't just slip through the cracks like this.
Niemi is a 26-year-old who entered the season with three games of NHL experience. He was the Blackhawks' goalkeeper for fewer than half the games this season, taking over late in the year from Cristobal Huet(notes). Chicago vowed to ride his hot glove into the postseason, and Niemi started all 22 games.
“If you want to go far," Hossa said, “you have to have a great goalie."
Greatness comes with longevity, and it's also apparent in fits and spurts. With less than five minutes left in regulation, Niemi proved himself the latter, sprawling to save a point-blank Mike Richards(notes) shot, practically dislocating his leg to stop Claude Giroux(notes). Following the unlucky goal off Hossa, Philadelphia kept attacking, and with Niemi splayed on the ground and about 90 seconds left, the puck kicked to Philadelphia's Jeff Carter(notes) in front of the goal.
“Luckily," Niemi said, “he shot it in my mask."
Niemi was lucky. To win a championship, it takes that. He took his mask off and grinned. Taking a puck to the face couldn't mess with his smile.
It did mess with Duncan Keith's. Actually, it mangled his mouth, turned it into an advertisement for cosmetic dentists everywhere. Evel Knievel couldn't have jumped the gap in Keith's yap after an errant puck in the Western Conference finals smashed into his face and took seven teeth with it.
Keith returned to play that game, and he refused to replace the teeth until the season ended, so he spent more than two weeks missing nearly a quarter of what normally fills his gumline. He is a bad, bad man – the good kind of bad – and as the preeminent defenseman for the Blackhawks, Keith was right: He couldn't miss any time, let alone a game, to deal with something that was more unsightly than anything.
“Everything is worth it when you get to hoist that thing over your head," Keith said, glancing at the Cup he held seconds earlier. “It's a battle. There's no lying when they say it's a grind. I'm missing my teeth. It's visible. But there are a lot of guys on our team who are injured, playing through things, bumps and bruises, whether serious or not as serious. Everybody sacrifices."
Not seven teeth, but he's right. The Blackhawks stuck together against a Philadelphia team surfing atop a pipeline of momentum. The Flyers made it to the postseason on a shootout, and they came back from a 3-0 series deficit against Boston, and they played even with a far superior Blackhawks team for four games.
When Chicago hung seven goals on the Flyers in Game 5, though, the sentiment shifted. This didn't have to be a home-team-wins-'em-all series. The line changes coach Joel Quenneville made in Game 4 were working, and whether it was Kane or Toews or Hossa or Niemi or Keith, nearly all of the Blackhawks were doing their job. This would be their Cup to lose, not Philadelphia's to win.
“We knew that it was meant to be," Toews said. “It didn't matter how we did it."
They did it with the 16th championship-winning overtime goal and first in a decade, a laser from the left corner that looked awfully familiar. It went to review because even the officials didn't see it. The Blackhawks didn't bother to stop celebrating, an odd scene inside a deathly quiet rink. While everybody else awaited an official announcement, the Blackhawks didn't need a horn or lamp or replay to say what they knew.
Patrick Kane told his teammates they had won the Stanley Cup, and they believed him.