As the lockout-shortened season dawned, there were questions about the Blackhawks, who had flamed out in the first round of the 2012 playoffs. The core of their 2010 Stanley Cup team was still in place -- captain Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and 2010 Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Duncan Keith -- but the ability of Corey Crawford (right) to be a true No. 1 goalie was in doubt. Coach Joel Quenneville's job was rumored to be less than secure. Add an abbreviated training camp to the mix and Chicago's start would prove to be stunning.
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In the first game of the season, against the defending Stanley Cup champion Kings at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, the Blackhawks spoiled the banner-raising party by scoring four goals in the game's first 22 minutes en route to a 5-2 win. The next night, against Phoenix, they exacted a measure of revenge for last season's playoff ouster by beating the Coyotes, 6-4.
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A come-from-behind 2-1 win over the San Jose Sharks on February 22 marked the Blackhawks' 17th consecutive game in which they'd earned at least one point. Their streak eclipsed Anaheim's NHL record start in 2006-07. At 14-0-3, Chicago showed few signs of slowing down. Said veteran Dallas Stars winger Ray Whitney: "They looked like they were already 20 games into the season [after the first week]."
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On March 8, in their 25th game of the season, the Blackhawks finally suffered their first regulation defeat of the year, falling 6-2 to the Colorado Avalanche in Denver. It was Chicago's first such loss in nearly a year -- a stretch of 30 games. They would lose again two nights later to the Oilers at home, but during their streak, the Hawks were able to build a 10-point cushion over the rest of the Western Conference, essentially securing a postseason berth with their amazing start.
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On many nights during their run, the Hawks were carried by one of their stars, be it Toews, Kane, Keith, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa or Brent Seabrook. But the spotlight began to shine on emerging talent like rookie winger Brandon Saad, whose offensive game broke out in March when he scored 15 points in 14 games. On March 31, the 20-year-old winger had two goals and an assist in a 7-1 shellacking of Detroit at Joe Louis Arena.
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Corey Crawford began to gain the trust of Chicago's faithful with his solid performances early in the season, but when he was beset by injury in February and then again in April, backup Ray Emery turned out to be an excellent replacement. By season's end, the two netminders had matching 1.94 GAAs, good for second best in the league. In 30 games, Crawford had a .926 save percentage, which ranked third in the West.
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Despite a stretch of relative doldrums in March -- the Hawks went 5-5 starting with their first regulation loss, and were swept in their three-game season series with Anaheim, which turned out to be a Pacific Division power -- Chicago clinched a playoff berth on April 7, with 10 games left to play in the 48-game season. Two-and-a-half-weeks later, the Hawks secured their first Presidents' Trophy in 22 years with a 4-1 win over Edmonton.
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As the top seed in the West, the Blackhawks drew the Minnesota Wild, who they dispatched rather easily, thanks in part to Patrick Sharp. The winger, who had just six goals during the regular season, scored five times in the five games.
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Facing the rival Red Wings in the conference semifinals, the Hawks eventually found themselves in dire straits, down thee games to one as their offense seemed to abandon them. In three straight losses, they mustered just two goals. Chicago had never come back from such a deficit in franchise history, but in Game 5, the Hawks' ability to score was reignited, and behind a pair of goals by center Andrew Shaw, their 4-1 win keyed a masterful comeback.
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With the score knotted at 1-1 in the third period of Game 7, Niklas Hjalmarsson's goal within the final two minutes was controversially waved off by referee Stephen Walkom, who doled out coincidental minors by away from the play. Detroit was thus handed a second chance at an upset, but the Blackhawks finally dispatched their tenacious opponents in overtime when Brent Seabrook (center) ripped a shot past Wings goalie Jimmy Howard 3:35 into the extra frame.
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The Blackhawks met the defending Cup champions in the conference finals. The Kings, who had come into the playoffs as a No. 5 seed, needed six games to beat St. Louis in the first round, then found themselves in a tough battle with San Jose that went seven. Worn down, LA's' scoring punch ran dry vs. Chicago. Meanwhile, the Blackhawks' stars, who had been stifled through most the playoffs, began to reawaken. In Game 5, a determined Kane capped off a hat trick by scoring in double OT, sending the Hawks to the Stanley Cup Final.
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Next up for the winners of the Clarence Campbell Bowl as the best in the west: the Boston Bruins, the first time the two Original Six franchises have met in the postseason in 35 years. Their Stanley Cup Final showdown is eagerly anticipated as a bruising battle between two deep and very similar teams. <bold>Read Allan Muir's Stanley Cup Final preview</bold>
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