Chicago Blackhawks' Stanley Cup a monument to skill, speed, grit

Tuesday June 25th, 2013

With an ending that was akin to sticking your finger in an electrical socket, the Chicago Blackhawks emerged in shocking fashion from Game 6 with the Stanley Cup for 2013. You can call what happened to their Original Six rival Bruins -- grabbing a 2-1 lead with under eight minutes remaining in regulation, then while only 77 seconds away from forcing Game 7, giving up two goals in 17 seconds -- a collapse, and you wouldn't be entirely wrong.. But credit the winners, too. After Boston took that late lead, the Hawks found another gear and played nearly the rest of the game in the B's end of the ice.

Chicago's jolting, very late come-from-behind victory has few comparables -- none in hockey that I can think of (and Scotty Bowman, who has seen a lot more hockey than I have, told Pierre McGuire on TV after the game that he couldn't think of one, either). Perhaps only Bobby Thomson's three-run homer to win the 1951 National League pennant for the New York Giants against the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Manchester United's two late goals in injury time by Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to defeat Bayern Munich for the 1999 UEFA Champions League title, are the only parallels. If so, what we saw on Monday night in Boston could be considered the greatest conclusion in Stanley Cup history. (My friend Jeff Z. Klein did some research on other great Stanley Cup finishes here in The New York Times).

However, watching the Bruins bamboozle the Blackhawks in the first period -- outshooting them 12-6 and attempting 31 shots to Chicago's 8 -- it was easy to believe that this series would go the distance. But Boston only cashed in one of those opportunities and we'd seen that movie before: In Game 2, a Chicago tsunami of similar proportions (the Hawks ousthooting the B's 19-4) only resulted in a 1-0 lead, and the Bruins bounced back for an overtime win.

As we wrote afterward, "It's a hockey truism that a team as overpowering as the Blackhawks were in the first half of Game 2 had best make the most of its opportunities because you only get so many. A mere 1-0 lead coming out of that fury is perilous because the victim of such an onslaught only needs one goal, one breakdown by an opponent, to get back on even terms. If that happens, all that early superiority suddenly becomes empty and turns meaningless while the team that had been getting stomped grows instantly confident, even emboldened. "

That's what Stanley Cup hockey is all about: digging deeper -- regardless of the circumstances -- and not stopping until the final buzzer. One team did that on Monday night, the other didn't, or couldn't, and the club that could now carries the Cup.

MUIR: Game 6 Report Card for Blackhawks and Bruins

A Stanley Cup blueprint

Why did it happen? In large part because -- as we noted in our preview to Game 6 -- the Blackhawks are a faster, more skilled team. That's not to say they are without their physical side. They were tough enough to not be intimidated by any team they played -- including the last two Cup champions, who were renowned for their banging style -- and could dish out punishment of their own. But opponents couldn't skate with them either and their amazing regular season record, including a 24-game points streak to start the season, was the initial proof that GM Stan Bowman had the right mix, with abundant speed and skill being the elements that set his club apart.

This is all pretty significant stuff in a copycat league where clubs that hope to win the Cup someday often ape the teams that do win it. One has to follow the arc of recent NHL history to fully appreciate what Chicago's triumph could portend.

Coming out of the 2004-05 lockout, the league introduced new rules designed to put speed and skill back in the game, changes that were long overdue and badly needed after a dozen years of the game being slowed by defensive tactics, neutral zone clogging and uncalled obstruction fouls. And the game did open up, with the effect of creating the most crowd-pleasing hockey since the 1980s. The better teams became the fastest, most skilled teams.

Sizing them up

But in the last couple of years, some of the standards surrounding the improved game slipped. Speed and skill were again being overtaken by defense, especially from big, grinding, "heavy" teams whose physical approach won by shifting the balance between skill and resistance in favor of a slower, more punishing style of play.

The results could be seen in the last two Cup winners: the L.A. Kings and the Bruins. Their success had the consequence of at least some teams rethinking the style they wanted to play and how they built their rosters. For example, the Vancouver Canucks seem to be reconsidering their makeup.

After his team was swept by the bigger San Jose Sharks in the first round, GM Mike Gillis acknowledged in May, "I believe you have to have skill in the game," but also said that "the landscape has changed" and that he would seek bigger, tougher players. Eventually, he dismissed coach Alain Vigneault, whose reputation (fair or not) is to turn his players loose with the puck. Giliis is replacing him with former Rangers coach John Tortorella, whose demanding ways included imposing a grinding, defensive style on a skillful club that ended up being offensively challenged. Tortorella's hiring is already a burning hot topic, not just in British Columbia, but around the league.

It's tough to fully know in advance what Tortorella's real impact will be, but perhaps Gillis' moves will pay off if he augments his high-skill players like the Sedin twins with a few more high-end power forwards like Alex Burrows and Ryan Kesler, bigger players who also skate and move the puck well.

For the Blackhawks, having that sort of presence on their first line in the person of Bryan Bickell made a huge difference in the postseason. The Hawks played best when he was on the wing with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. It was Bickell who got the first of those two late tallies, with goalie Corey Crawford pulled, after some determined work by his linemates and a brilliant pass from Toews, whose leadership skills are among the best in all team sports, not just hockey.

Kane's speed and skill, as the video above shows, made that goal possible in the first place. His selection as the Conn Smythe winner as playoff MVP was questioned by some -- even by him when Pierre McGuire spoke with him on the ice over NBC; Kane thought Crawford had been snubbed, and perhaps so. Personally, I thought Hawks defenseman Duncan Keith, who was the best player on the ice in Game 6 and one of the best all spring, deserved serious consideration -- as did Toews, who may not have put up big numbers, but who does so many things very well that don't register on the game sheets.

DATER: Kane a worthy Conn Smythe choice

Of course, Toews, who suffered what was called "head trauma" (that's a concussion, folks) in Game 5 and sat out the third period, tied the Game 6 at 1-1 in the second period, his own speed the reason why he pulled away from Zdeno Chara, the massive B's blueliner who seemed to get slower and slower all series.

Chara, on the ice for 10 of the last 12 Chicago goals, was targeted just as Toews had been, but the constant banging seemed to wear Boston's captain down more, the Hawks forcing him to handle the puck and hitting him every time he did. Bickell did a lot of that damage.

And then there was the game-winner by Dave Bolland, who is a very effective depth center in Chicago's scheme. Depth players on both Boston and Chicago were big focal points throughout the postseason.

MUIR: Blackhawks will look to youth in 2013-14 | Bruins need more speed, scoring touch

Going deep

By now it should be clear that depth is just as important in the playoffs as good goaltending and star performances by star players. Of those three, depth is the least talked-about. Teams certainly need it when this tournament becomes (as TV announcers are wont to tell us) a battle of attrition. But injuries aside, it's no coincidence that the NHL's two deepest teams played for the Cup.

Early on, praise flowed for the Bruins' fourth line of Gregory Campbell, Dan Paille and Shawn Thornton, but that line vanished after Campbell broke his leg and it proved to be a big setback for Boston. No matter who the Bruins plugged in or how they changed their third and fourth lines, they weren't able to consistently regain what that trio had given them. Bolland was hailed as one of the NHL's top checking centers in the Hawks' 2010 Cup run, but injuries have plagued him. He only hurt Boston in this series, never more than with 59 seconds left in the third period, 17 ticks of the clock after Bickell's marker.

The Hawks' bottom six -- Bolland, Brandan Saad, Viktor Stalberg, Michael Frolik, Marcus Kruger, and Andrew Shaw -- were faster and better than Boston's. Saad and Shaw even saw time on the first line.

And the Hawks had depth on defense, too, always able to dress six NHL-caliber blueliners. They really leaned on Michal Rozsival for big minutes and big plays against Boston. The Bruins, too, had terrific depth on defense in the postseason -- some of it surprising, as when they dressed three rookies -- Torey Krug, Matt Bartkowski and Dougie Hamilton -- against the Rangers and didn't miss a beat. Krug never left the B's lineup and Boston looks pretty strong on the back end going forward.

CAZENEUVE: What's next for Blackhawks and Bruins?

But this season belonged to the Blackhawks from the January day the puck dropped until the June night that Toews lifted the Cup. They were forced to undergo a mini-rebuild after winning the 2010 Cup due to salary cap issues, and for all the heroics of their players and the maneuvers made by Joel Quenneville and the coaching staff, Stan Bowman's role in this championship shouldn't be overlooked. He's reconstructed a club that's good enough and young enough to be a league power for a while.

Of course, as we witnessed once again on Monday night, you never can tell what will happen in the Stanley Cup playoffs. At least we can say the Blackhawks were powerful enough in this game to shock us all.

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