BOSTON -- The thoughts began to creep into the Blackhawks' heads as the minutes ticked down in Game 6, with the Bruins holding a 2-1 lead. So, we'll go back to Chicago for Game 7 and try again in two days. But a game, particularly one in this wild and unforgettable Stanley Cup Final, can turn in an instant. And this one did, with Chicago winger Bryan Bickell sweeping in the equalizer with just 1:16 left in the game.
Then an inkling began to seep into Boston's consciousness. So, we'll go to overtime, try to win it in the next 20 minutes. But before anyone in the TD Garden could process it, Game 6 swung on the stick of Chicago's Dave Bolland, who scored the winner just 17 seconds after Bickell's tying tally. Lurking near the side of Boston goalie Tuukka Rask's net, Bolland happened to move to exactly the right place to get his stick on a puck that rebounded off the post, a fortuitous bounce that won the game by the thinnest of margins.
Shocking. Thrilling. Exceptional. The words can't capture it all. And yet, there couldn't have been a more fitting end to this postseason, to this Final that revived the NHL from the clutches of near-death. In the end, the team that ushered hockey back with a record-breaking start to this lockout-shortened season was crowned champions. And the 'Hawks capped off one of the best and most memorable Final series with an unbelievable flourish, one which was really only the second-best comeback of the postseason.
"We had the real hockey fans excited about this series," Bruins coach Claude Julien said after the game. "Our fans are very forgiving and supportive, and ... in order for us to thank them, you've got to give them the kind of hockey I think that they saw from all the teams here in the playoffs."
After the highlights of the last two months -- the Maple Leafs' Game 7 collapse, the triple overtime games and the gripping end Monday night -- it's clear that the season that almost never was will also go down as one that hockey fans won't soon forget.
At the center of it all along were the Blackhawks, who had been the best team in the NHL from start to finish. Their depth, speed and creativity went unmatched through much of the regular season, as they won three-quarters of their games and dropped just seven in regulation.
"It was one of those seasons," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "We're almost charmed the way we started the season and the way we ended. Nobody saw that one coming either way."
Something divine was certainly working in the Blackhawks' favor in the first period on Monday night, as the Bruins came in and controlled almost every area of the ice. They outshot the Blackhawks 12-6 in the first period and won 71 percent of the draws. Taking into account blocked shots and pucks put just wide of the net, Boston actually threw 32 shots toward Chicago goalie Corey Crawford's net, four times as many as its opponent. And yet, the Bruins held just a 1-0 lead at the first intermission, off a goal from center Chris Kelly.
"We were very fortunate to come out of that first period," Quenneville said. "But the resiliency of our team was in place all year long. The depth of our four lines made it such a great season and a fun team to coach."
It was the effort of Chicago's captain, Jonathan Toews, that brought the Blackhawks right back into the game. Early in the second, with a Boston power play expiring, Toews jumped on a loose puck off a face-off, barreled down the right boards and snapped a shot that beat Rask and tied the game.
With the score at 1-1, the contest predictably turned into a goaltending battle, as Crawford and Rask exchanged breathtaking saves across the rink. But midway through the third, Milan Lucic knocked in a puck from right in front of the net, put there by center David Krejci, who finished the postseason as the league's leading scorer with 26 points, seven more than linemates Nathan Horton and Lucic, and seven more than Chicago's Patrick Kane, who received the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP after the game.
Kane, a Buffalo native, scored seven goals in his last eight playoff games to became the first U.S.-born forward to win the award. But to the 24-year-old winger, at least two of his teammates were more valuable.
"[Linemates Toews and Bickell] made hockey really easy the past couple weeks for me," Kane said. "We actually came up with a name for me this morning: the Benefish. [It stands] for [being] the beneficiary of all their hard work."
Indeed, on the team that excelled so thoroughly from start to finish, there was no standout performer, no singularly outstanding man. Only a shocking end to a thrilling game for an exceptional team. A brilliant postseason, this was one the fans truly deserved.