Saturday May 23rd, 2009

CHICAGO -- The last time the Chicago Blackhawks won a Stanley Cup was so long ago, Bobby Hull didn't even have hair.

The year was 1961. If there is still footage of the last Cup parade through the streets of the City with Broad Shoulders and Lousy Winters, the guess is it's in black-and-white -- entirely appropriate for a team that withheld games from local television until recently and thus skipped several TV generations. Hull, of course, was the incandescent star of the team then and when the Jumbotron showed the Golden Jet midway through the second period with that expansive smile and luxurious white mop on his head, 22,678 roared their approval. They also seemed smitten with a tall guy to his right in a red No. 23 Blackhawks sweater and a cap, a fellow who once played some basketball in the same arena where Hull, then thinning on top, wove his magic. (Michael Jordan, if you didn't guess.) The ovation wasn't quite as boisterous as the cheering that rocked the United Center during the Star-Spangled Banner, but the cheers were throaty and sustained for two local sporting icons. Of course, the score at the time of Game 3 of the Western Conference final didn't hurt the decibel level: Chicago 3, Detroit 0.

Then with the ice tilted in one direction and the Chicago party well underway, the Red Wings cleared their heads, crowded the front of the net and started batting pucks past Nikolai Khabibulin, who suddenly wasn't a goaltender as much as he was Mr. Toad's Wild Ride at an amusement park. Down one defenseman -- more on that later -- three other Detroit blueliners scored in a span of 4:23 late in the period, starting with Nicklas Lidstrom's power play slap shot, a goal that was followed in short order by wristers from Brian Rafalski and Jonathan Ericsson.

With Chicago's playoff lives in the balance, at the start of the third period Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville switched from the Bulin Wall to the Maginot Line.

Cristobal Huet, France's lone contribution to the NHL, was making his debut in the 2009 playoffs in place of Khabibulin, who was hors de combat with what Quenneville later called a lower body injury. Huet is the free-agent signee ($22.5 million, four years) who was slated to take over the starting role this season in Chicago before life and a resurgent Khabibulin, who was on the trade block early in the season, got in the way. More than a fifth of the Blackhawks salary cap space is devoted to two men who must play in front of a six-by-four net one at a time. (Chicago paid its goaltenders $12.375 million this season, about $10 million more than the Red Wings. Chris Osgood and Ty Conklin earned a combined $2.45 million.) This has been a burden on the budget, but for once Huet, who contributed mightily to the Washington Capitals playoff run in 2008, would be judged strictly by a single number: his save percentage. If it weren't 1.000 -- in other words if Huet were a cheese-eating goal-surrendering monkey, to borrow some argot from earlier in the decade - the Blackhawks would dig themselves a colossal hole against the defending Stanley Cup champion.

"That's either the best time or the worst time for him to come in," Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp said, "tied 3-3 and our season on the line." For Huet, it was the best of time. The goalie, who hadn't played since April 11, stopped all six shots in a taut third period and didn't see a hint of rubber in overtime before Sharp jumped on a glorious opportunity -- Lidstrom had shattered his stick during the sequence -- to bang in a shot 1:52 into the extra period. Chicago 4, Detroit 3. (RECAP | BOX) The party resumed.

Huet is a no-maintenance goalie, a quality that once endeared him to teammates when he played in Montreal. He bided his time with the Hawks, worked hard in practice -- "Just trying to keep our (shooters) honest," he said with a hint of a grin -- and filled a giant chasm when Chicago needed it. He is preternaturally calm. Whether he settled the Hawks or they worked especially hard to cocoon their new goalie -- a question of what came first, the poulet or the oeuf -- doesn't matter. For whatever reason, the Blackhawks played one of their most solid post-season periods in the third. In a city that had Bruce Sutter and Lee Smith, Huet should get credit for the biggest save of all.

Now, back to the other depletions on the rosters.

The Red Wings were down a defenseman because Niklas Kronwall had been banished for separating nifty Blackhawks winger Martin Havlat's compos from his mentis in the first period. The hit was typical of Kronwall, who specializes in sending inattentive opponents to dreamland. The defenseman feigned that he was about to give up the offensive blue line and drift back into the neutral zone but instead stood his ground along the boards near the Chicago bench. A breakout pass was in Havlat's skates and while he was looking for it -- at one point his head was up and he appeared to see Kronwall -- the defenseman took a stride and nailed Havlat with what appeared to be a forearm to the chin. Referee Dan O'Halloran called a five-minute interference penalty, presumably because Havlat had not played the puck with his stick even though it was there between his feet. With Havlat on the ice (he would stay down for almost for three minutes), it seemed like an opportune time to call something. If elbowing and charging were out and because the NHL has no specific rules about blows to the head, this seemed as good an idea as any.

The penalty, which carried an automatic game misconduct, was seen through different prisms, naturally. Chicago defenseman Brian Campbell thought it was "a pretty gutless hit" while Quenneville called it "dangerous." Red Wings coach Mike Babcock merely noted that sometimes coaches and players have bad games but referees don't. While the coach said nothing remotely fine-worthy, his displeasure was obvious.

The Blackhawks victory guaranteed a June 5 start for the Stanley Cup final, which could lead to a healthy hiatus of more than a week for the Pittsburgh Penguins and perhaps the Red Wings if both teams run through the rest of their Conference finals series. This, of course, messes with the biological clocks of hockey players, who have been genetically programmed for a game every other day in the spring.

But this isn't the case of DNA. This is a case of NBC.

In a contorted move that not even former Olympic gymnast and Dancing With the Stars winner Shawn Johnson would dare attempt, the NHL has bent over backwards to plant a big wet one on the backside of the Peacock. Not only is the NHL willing to let its showcase event cool for a long while, the Stanley Cup returns with back-to-back games on a Friday and Saturday, June 5 and 6. Those are lousy nights for television, so we are informed, and what better way to fill in a blank three hours than by sticking on a hockey game. The last time there were games on consecutive days in a final was 1955, Games 4 and 5 between Montreal and Detroit.

Now the exposure is swell -- better than the NHL's subterranean cable partner Versus, which never will be the default channel of choice for the casual sports fan -- but the NHL, in aiming to please a network partner that pays no up-front rights fees, is veering into areas where it affects competition. Occasionally stadium availability will force some permutations like the back-to-back games Pittsburgh and Washington were obliged to play in their second-round series, but the showcase series deserves to be properly nurtured. The NHL needs to think of what's best for Detroit rookie Ville Leino and not worry unduly about Jay Leno.

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