CHICAGO - Will the Chicago Blackhawks defeat the Philadelphia Flyers and win the Stanley Cup? The bigger question should be, how many Stanley Cups will the Blackhawks win?
It seems downright silly to utter the word "dynasty" when discussing a franchise that only made the playoffs once between 1998 and 2008 and hasn't won the Stanley Cup in 49 years. But there's something compelling, something convincing, about this Blackhawks team. It starts with the tantalizing promise of its sublimely skilled youngsters, continues through its unmatched depth, and finishes with the fact this character group has already been together for a few years and has already been galvanized by enduring the bad times.
Eight key Blackhawks players, the core of the team, were drafted between 2002 and 2007; they've grown up together, learned how to be pros together. And now they know they're close to making history together and they're determined not to squander the opportunity.
"I feel very fortunate to be here in Chicago," said Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville. "To be here at the right time, at the right moment, and having a young group and a special opportunity."
Okay, but still, aren't we getting ahead of ourselves? In this day and age in the NHL – with 30 teams and free agency and salary caps and 100-game seasons that can last 10 months – it's tough enough winning once, never mind two or three Cups in a row.
A year ago, the Penguins appeared poised for a dynasty run, with an unparalleled 1-2-3 center punch of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal – and Marc-Andre Fleury coming into his own in goal. Sure, there wasn't a lot of scoring punch on the wings and the blue line dropped off after veteran Sergei Gonchar and Kris Letang. But with the Big 3 down the middle and Fleury's potential finally unmasked, the rest was a fill-in-the-blank freebie for Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero – a free agency signing here, a trade deadline acquisition there, and pencil in the Pens for the final and, presumably, a parade.
Except it turns out you need more than two of the best players in the world and a shutdown demon to get a dynasty going, especially if your stopper stops stopping.
You need that top-end talent, of course, but that top-end talent needs help – wingers who can score, a defense corps that's as smooth in the offensive zone as it is rough-and-tumble in its own end, that kind of thing.
"That's the best thing about our team is our depth, we've got four lines, we've got all these defensemen, two great goaltenders…That's why we're in the position we are, it's not just one or two guys, it's the full team."
So says Chicago's Patrick Kane, one of the team's top-end talents along with lead-by-example captain Jonathan Toews, who heads into the finals with the quietest 13-game playoff point streak in memory.
"Kane has improved defensively," Quenneville said, "and I think Johnny just keeps getting better and better. Their growth as being top players is in the right place and, as an organization, we should all feel very fortunate to have two great players [who are] two great people as well."
The coach can't stop there when it comes to his pair of aces.
"I've been around a couple of quality players at a young age who turned into great players over time," Quenneville said. "Joe Sakic kind of reminds me of a young Jonathan Toews where each and every game they're there for the guys. They don't say a lot, but they lead by how they play. I think Johnny represents exactly the type of leadership any team would love to have."
Any team would love to have the bounty the Blackhawks boast, too.
Toews and Kane, like Crosby and Malkin, are in the infancy of their NHL careers. Unlike Crosby and Malkin, the 21-year-old Kane and 22-year-old Toews are joined by a bevy of young, skilled teammates. Five other 'Hawks forwards are 25-or-under, and we're talking about productive players here, not fourth-line grit (although there's no shortage of that necessary ingredient in Chicago, either). David Bolland, the Blackhawks' version of Pittsburgh's Staal, turns 24 on June 5, while two-way wingers Troy Brouwer, Kris Versteeg and Andrew Ladd are also just 24 and gargantuan Dustin Byfuglien, a house with hands, is 25.
On defense, unheralded (but not for long) Niklas Hjalmarsson turns 23 one day after Bolland's birthday. And of course, there's 25-year-old Brent Seabrook and his partner, Duncan Keith, who may be toothless, but it's not due to old age (he's 26), but rather his ability to take a puck in the mouth and barely miss a shift. If you're on the Blackhawks' bench and see Keith spit out seven chiclets and keep skating, how do you do anything but man up and play inspired hockey?
"The support we've had from our family, from our fans, everything has been incredible," Toews said. "We want to win it for them, but most of all we want to win it for each and every guy in that locker room."
Now come on – that's sweeter than young love. It's the kind of innocent truth you can get away with saying when you're 22 and looking across the room at Marian Hossa, knowing the ex-Penguin and ex-Wing faces a hat trick hell of three consecutive ring-less finals if things don't go Chicago's way. Hossa, after all, is a rare bird on the ‘Hawks – over 30 and in his first year with the team. Along with ex-Devil John Madden, another free agent signing last summer, Hossa represents the team's veteran presence at forward. No one else on the top four lines (or even on the black-shirted fifth line) is older than 28.
Of course, the Blackhawks don't want to talk about Game 2 against the Flyers right now, much less get too far ahead of themselves and fantasize about winning the 2010 Stanley Cup. 2011? 2012? Forget it; those far-off dates are non-starters and no Blackhawk is going to get drawn into a flight of fancy that'll just end up on Philadelphia's bulletin board.
But the distinct possibility remains that the Blackhawks aren't on the cusp of one Cup, but multiple. It won't be easy; it never is. Goaltender Antti Niemi will need to prove he's more than a two-month hot streak, the team will have to avoid complacency, not to mention injury and free agency pillaging. But will there be another 49-year wait between Cups for Blackhawks fans? Not in Toews' lifetime.
"This is it," the captain said. "Obviously this is the big show. It's gotten bigger and bigger every series…This is the ultimate thing. The entire hockey world is watching this. These are the type of games you love to play in. It's a fun thing to be a part of."
Get used to it, Jonathan. You'll continue having fun in 2011, 2012, 2013 and beyond.