Thursday June 10th, 2010

In the end, it was a suspension of disbelief. There was no red light behind the goal, no signal from the closest referee. Blackhawk teammates jumped over the bench and jumped back in uncertainty. Their Flyer foes were jousting for position as if the play was still alive.

After 49 years, could this really have been the goal that ended the wait for a Stanley Cup in Chicago? Did anyone know for sure?

"I might have been the only one," Patrick Kane was saying after the game, his arms around his parents at center ice as he planted kisses on foreheads. "I don't know how many people were really convinced, but I was sure. I wanted to let the guys know it was okay to start the celebration."

Kane's seeing-eye shot that very few people saw finished off the gritty Flyers, 4-3 (RECAP | BOXSCORE) at 4:10 of overtime, a flick of hope from a miserable angle that wedged under Flyers goalie Michael Leighton and lodged in the leather support that held down the goal. Even as Blackhawks players jumped over the boards, the announcement came that the play was under review, as if 49 years weren't enough.

As their minuscule hopes rode on a reversal that would never come, the Flyers watched the 'Hawks jump on top of each other in two separate piles. The celebration couldn't wait.

"I didn't see it go in," said Dave Bolland, one of the 'Hawks who was on the bench caught between restraint and euphoria. "I wanted to let loose, but I was watching the other guys, like, 'Did you see it? Are you sure? Can we do this?"

The play called to mind the goal/non-goal/goal that Brett Hull scored to win the Cup for the Dallas Stars in overtime in Buffalo in 1999. "A little bit like that," Scotty Bowman, the 'Hawks senior advisor, was saying as he walked around center ice after the game. It marked Bowman's 12th Stanley Cup in one capacity or another. "It was just such a relief. I knew we'd get it tonight, though. I've had 10 of them on the road, so we weren't going home."

Now the Blackhawks can go home and wait for a parade, having put away the Predators, Canucks, Sharks and, finally, the Flyers in six very competitive games. "It's great, so great. I don't have to dream anymore," said Hawks defenseman Brian Campbell. "I can sleep again now."

As the teams finally made their way to center ice for the ceremonial handshake, there was an especially heartfelt hug between Mike Richards, the game Flyers captain, and Jonathan Toews, the 22-year-old captain of the 'Hawks who tied Denis Savard's team record with 29 points for the playoffs and won the Conn Smythe Trophy -- largely on the strength of his play in the early rounds. The pair played together on a brilliant line for the victorious Canadian team at the Olympics and had been re-cast as rivals during this final.

"I told him to keep his head up," Toews said of their brief exchange. "He's an incredible guy and an incredible leader. I have a lot of respect for him and what his guys accomplished."

The Flyers accomplished a great deal just to get to this point, including several come-from behind wins during the playoffs -- most notably in their Game 7 vs. Boston that capped a return from a three-games-to-none deficit -- a 9-2 record at home, and another timely rally to force overtime on Wednesday.

With Chicago ahead 3-2 and playing a fairly conservative trap with little forecheck, Flyers forward Ville Leino did a superb job to sneak through the obstacles in front of him. Leino then sent a pass from the corner that 'Hawks' defenseman Brent Seabrook inadvertently cleared off the skate of teammate Marian Hossa, leaving Scott Hartnell with a chance to knock the puck in from the doorstep. It was Hartnell's second goal of the contest, and both Flyers who received assists, Leino and Danny Briere, went into the record books on the play. Leino tied Dino Ciccarelli's NHL rookie record for points in a playoff year (21). Briere, who assisted on another goal and also scored his own, set a new Flyers mark for points in a postseason with 30, two more than Brian Propp in 1987.

It was a last-gasp chapter in the Flyers' storybook season that included a shootout win on the final day just to reach the playoffs. "When you go through something together as a group," said Flyers coach Peter Laviolette, "you learn a lot about your team, a lot about your players, what they're made of. I'm proud of these guys for giving themselves an opportunity to compete for the Cup. It's going to sting for a while. It hurts right now. But they never quit."

Still, they couldn't match the young guns on the 'Hawks: Kane, who added an assist, and Toews, who set up Dustin Byfuglien for the game's opening goal at 16:49 of the first period and was his usual dominant self in the faceoff circle. After entering the game with a 60-percent success rate from the dot in the playoffs, Toews again won 16 of 23 draws. The pair of stars that the Flyers had shut down for most of the minutes in the first five games had their best games of the series on Wednesday night.

"The pressure on those two kids was unbelievable," said Andrew Ladd, whose brilliant tip of Niklas Hjalmarsson's point shot gave Chicago a 3-2 lead near the end of the second period. "They way they handled it, you wouldn't know they were kids. The compete level, maturity level ... great, just great."

Give Toews credit for another veteran move that actually took place during the postgame celebration. As he held the Stanley Cup aloft and skated with it briefly, he searched for one particular teammate. Granted there isn't a strict order of who should touch the Cup before whom, but the second man to touch it, the one who gets it from the captain, has usually won the vice-touching honor by paying his dues in some way. So Toews did well to hand the chalice to Marian Hossa, the winger who played on the wrong ends of both the 2008 and 2009 finals in which the Red Wings and Penguins took turns beating one another to win the Cup.

"I was so happy to get my hands on it at last," Hossa said after game as he stood at center ice. "To come so, so, so close, like you know you have it and then you don't, it would have been too much three years in a row. You never know if you get too many chances."

In one respect, this 'Hawks team resembles the squad that won Chicago's last Cup in Detroit in 1961. That team featured two young stars: sniper Bobby Hull, who was 21, and playmaker Stan Mikita, who was a month shy of 20. The ages of Toews, 22, and Kane, 21, don't add up to the years in between championships, something that seemed impossible then, given the strength of the subsequent Chicago teams.

But the 'Hawks and Flyers were both riding slumps of five straight Cup appearances with out a title. Now the Flyers, who last won in 1975, will wait another season. With his assistant coaches rumored to be candidates for other head coaching vacancies next season and the difficulty in keeping a team together in the age of a salary cap, 'Hawks coach Joel Quenneville made only one guarantee in forecasting the future.

"We're going to enjoy this," he said. "The party in Chicago's going to be all world. I think we should enjoy it for a while."

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