CHICAGO -- There are so many things that simply pass in life, that flit through the consciousness and vanish into the discard pile of the brain. A mood. A whim. An NHL lockout.
You remember the NHL lockout, surely?
No, not 2004-05.
That's the one you recall, when the season was canceled, the Stanley Cup was not awarded and the NHL came back in the autumn with a 2.0 version that never really lived up to its promise. The lockout this season, with its rancor and 510 canceled games, seems to have made about as much lasting impact as a footprint on the ocean's edge. Seven months ago, the powers of the game were armed for Armageddon. The NHL and NHLPA stood at the abyss, peered over the edge, decided they didn't much care for the view and bequeathed the hockey world with labor peace for a decade.
At Gary Bettman's annual Stanley Cup Final press conference we again will drop in to see what condition his contrition is in, but the lockout feels as old as lava lamps. No apologies seem necessary. Maybe even a "you're welcome" should escape the Commissioner's lips. In a twisted way, the Lord of the Lockout and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr have made an already sexy Blackhawks-Bruins Stanley Cup Final -- heritage team vs. heritage team, three-zone player (Jonathan Toews) vs. three-zone player (Patrice Bergeron), Norris Trophy defenseman (Duncan Keith) vs. Norris Trophy defenseman (Zdeno Chara) -- even more appealing.
The breakneck 48-game schedule eliminated interconference games, demonstrating in the process that less can be more. Because teams were obliged to work their own side of the continent, the Blackhawks and Bruins did not see each other unless they paid for the NHL package. The current success of these teams with the famous logos -- "Respect the Indian," as ex-Hawks coach Denis Savard once put it, and the spoked-B Hub of Hockey -- have run along parallel tracks. (The last time they shared the ice was October 15, 2011, when the Occupy Movement going global was the big headline story.) The absence of any head-to-head competition lends a veneer of intrigue to this final, like in the pre-interleague days when baseball's World Series really felt like the World Series.
Obviously the canceled games disqualify 2012-13 as a fairytale season, but the NHL certainly has tiptoed to a happily-ever-after final. After all the Sturm und Drang of the fall and early winter -- although upon reflection, Marco Sturm hasn't been with the Bruins since 2010 -- the sun smiles munificently on Bettman's Panglossian best-of-all-possible worlds.
The truncated season figured to be wildly unpredictable, but the theme that knitted it together was constancy. Consider the playoffs: The conference finals were a veritable tournament of champions that matched the last four teams to win the Stanley Cup, including, of course, a Bruins team that pleasingly looked almost identical to the one the Blackhawks saw in the Occupy Movement days.
After winning the Cup in 2011, Boston's general manager, Peter Chiarelli, did more than keep the Bruins' core together. He melded the team, circa 1970s, into a familiar and fan-friendly monolith, losing the occasional piece like the retiring Mark Recchi or the freedom-loving Tim Thomas, but the turnover has been barely noticeable. For example, Thomas' former backup, Tuukka Rask, has stepped in admirably for the Conn Smythe Trophy winner. (The Bruins' new motto: still great goaltending with only half the quirkiness!) Boston has 17 of the 21 players back from the 2011 final and has spackled smartly with a call-up defenseman like Torey Krug -- honestly, a month ago, were you absolutely sure he was American and not, say, Swiss? -- and trade deadline acquisition Jaromir Jagr, the no-doubt-first-year-eligible Hall of Fame winger who happens to be the second best Czech forward on the team. (Center David Krejci, a steely playoff force in 2011, leads the NHL in playoff points.) The Bruins have the one fourth line you probably can name off the top off your head if only because coach Claude Julien has kept them together: Daniel Paille, Shawn Thornton and Gregory Campbell.
Campbell, of course, will miss the final, but he will be a part of these 2013 playoffs forever. Unlike so many NHL depth players who are forgotten, but not gone, Campbell managed to connect the game to its past -- Bobby Baun's broken-leg goal in the 1964 final, Bob Gainey's two separated shoulders in the 1984 playoffs -- even more than the sight of those two venerable jerseys will over the next two weeks. In the second period of Game 3 of Boston's shocking sweep of the Penguins, Campbell compacted the hockey ethos into 30 seconds or so. After taking a shot from Evgeni Malkin on the right leg -- vulcanized rubber met fibula at maybe 90 miles per hour -- Campbell gamely rose and stayed upright on his skates, refusing to abandon his penalty-killing duties. As amazing as actually continuing to play with a broken leg, Campbell had the presence of mind to slash the stick of Pittsburgh's James Neal in an attempt to disrupt the Penguins' power play. So often hockey fans only surmise the valiant nature of NHL players when a team announces (after elimination) that basically half the roster has queued outside an operating room. Campbell's steadfastness was right out in the open. Ted Williams got his tunnel. A flying Bobby Orr has his statue. Maybe Mass General now names an x-ray machine after Campbell.
The Bruins had their moment of doubt in the first-round against Toronto, a final 11 minutes in Game 7 that represents one of the grandest comebacks, and astonishing collapses, in playoff history. Those three late goals against the Maple Leafs and Bergeron's overtime winner are the foundation of the team that enters the final a slight underdog despite dismantling the Rangers and then exposing the underbelly of the most conspicuously gifted team, Pittsburgh, in the Eastern Conference Finals. After taking the scenic route against Toronto, Boston has barged on with a remarkable sense of purpose.
Unlike Chiarelli, cap-stressed Chicago GM Stan Bowman turned over his roster after winning the 2010 Cup. Just eight of the 21 players from that final remain. Still, some things hardly change. Patrick Kane, who scored the Cup winner, reintroduced himself in the playoffs at precisely the right moment, Game 5 in the Western Conference Finals against the Kings, with a hat trick that was capped by a goal in the second overtime. (At least this time, Kane, who buried a Toews pass on a two-on-one, wasn't the only person in the United Center who realized he had scored a big goal.)
But Chicago's most revealing moment of the first three rounds was, like Campbell's play, neither a goal nor a save. Falling behind Detroit three games to one in the second round, the Hawks needed a healthy dose of leadership. In a conversation that did not last even five seconds, they found it in Game 4. After Toews, generally the most level-headed of players, took a hooking and two high stick penalties in a surreal five-and-a-half-minute stretch, defenseman Brent Seabrook skated over to the penalty box to soothe his seething captain, to calm the roiling C. The gambit seemed to work. Toews was in a confessional mood after the loss. Chicago has dropped only one of its eight games since.
So, saved by a belated labor agreement, forged by adversity, buoyed by leadership and well coached by Boston's Julien and Chicago's Joel Quenneville, the Bruins and Blackhawks give the NHL its most attractive final since the back-to-back Pittsburgh-Detroit series of 2008-09. The Bruins, who protect Rask the way a troll guards his bridge, will try to clog the middle of the ice. The Blackhawks will attempt to break down Boston with superior speed. The Bruins forwards might be grittier, but the high-end Blackhawks forwards are more dangerous. The estimable Rask looks more confident than Chicago's Corey Crawford in goal, but the edge is slight. This has all the ingredients for a long series. (Of course, so did Pittsburgh-Boston.)
The one overwhelming Chicago advantage comes in the all-important national anthem department. Jim Cornelius, a fourth-year Hawks tenor, has better pipes than Rene Rancourt, the wily 73-year-old who has been singing at Bruins games since 1976. Rancourt could really bring it in the '80s and '90s, but the scouting report is that he now relies on fist pumps rather than timbre to jack up Boston's crowds.
And on that note ...