Four minutes into the second period of Game 4 of the Campbell Conference finals in Edmonton last Friday night, Oiler center Bernie Nicholls decided it was time to practice a little dentistry. Dr. Nicholls was quick, if not painless. An elbow to the face, and—voilà!—Chicago Blackhawk defenseman Bryan Marchment was minus a couple of teeth.
The zebras speed-skated to the scene, ready to break up the inevitable brawl. These Blackhawks, however, don't sock you; they rock you. Nicholls received a five-minute penalty, and Jeremy Roenick quickly scored to give Chicago a 2-0 lead. The Blackhawks added a third goal before Nicholls's penalty expired, and a fourth two seconds after he emerged from the box. The rest of the game was played merely to satisfy the TV advertisers.
Chicago's 5-1 victory terminated the series in four games and earned the Blackhawks a berth in the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1973. It was their 11th playoff win in a row, breaking the single-season record established in 1970 by the Boston Bruins. "This team just keeps getting better and better," said forward Michel Goulet. "We're playing with so much confidence, it's scary."
On their way to meeting the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the finals, the Blackhawks, molded by their defense-minded coach and general manager, Mike Keenan, took apart Brett Hull's St. Louis Blues as well as two of the highest-powered teams in the NHL. They came from behind to defeat the Blues in six games and then swept the Detroit Red Wings and the Oilers. "There's still another step to go," said Keenan, who led two Philadelphia Flyer teams to the finals in the '80s and lost both times. "Still another step to go before this mission is completed."
Four weeks ago the mission was nearly scrubbed. Down two games to one to St. Louis in the Norris Division semifinals, the Blackhawks were remembering the nightmare of the '91 playoffs, when they fell to the fourth-place Minnesota North Stars in the first round. "Last year we kept taking bad penalties, getting caught up in retaliation," says defenseman Chris Chelios, who has been perhaps the best player in the playoffs this year. "We did it again early against St. Louis."
So the Hawks had a team meeting and decided, in effect, to allow themselves to get pushed around. They would let the other guys get called for the dumb penalties and try to capitalize on power plays. "Tonight, turning the other cheek got us three goals ahead," said forward Mike Peluso after Friday's game. Peluso, who piled up a league-leading 408 penalty minutes during the regular season, rarely turns the other cheek. But, he said, "a cut on the lip is worth it to go to the finals."
A year ago Chicago took an NHL-high 106 points into the postseason, but after the Minnesota debacle, Keenan went back to the drawing board. He traded for such proven winners as defenseman Steve Smith, who had helped the Oilers win three Stanley Cups, and center Brent Sutter, who was a member of two championship New York Islander teams. Smith was paired on the back line with Chelios, a 1990 Keenan acquisition who had helped the Montreal Canadiens win a Stanley Cup, and Sutter was reunited with forward Greg Gilbert, a former Islander teammate who had gone to Chicago in '89. In all, Keenan made 16 trades, and the Blackhawks now have 11 players who were not on the team last season. The changes made for an interesting brew.
Keenan figured his concoction would need time to ferment. "We built this team for Game 81," he has said repeatedly. The Hawks ended up second in the Norris with 87 points, 11 behind the Wings.
In the playoffs, though, Chicago has played like a champion. "The better team won this series," said Oiler coach Ted Green. "Chicago is a hard-working team, it's disciplined and aggressive, and it plays the same way every shift, every night. I bow to the Blackhawks."
The Hawks battle for every loose puck. They love to dump it into the corners and then forecheck to the death. Occasionally, though, the gifted Roenick will make a dazzling move to the net, and Chicago will score. In the Edmonton series, Roenick, who scored four goals, wasn't alone. Steve Larmer also had four, Brian Noonan had three and Goulet and Rob Brown had a pair apiece. The Blackhawks outscored the Oilers 21-8 and outshot them 131-78. "All year people said we were a one-line team," says center Mike Hudson. "We're showing in the playoffs that that's not true. Everyone has picked up his game."
Including Chicago goaltender Ed Belfour. Like Pittsburgh's Tom Barrasso (page 34), Belfour began his career by winning the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goalie and the Calder Trophy as the rookie of the year. And like Barrasso, Belfour has subsequently struggled to live up to expectations. He began this, his second year, bogged down in a contract dispute that caused him to miss training camp and the first 14 games of the season. When he returned, Belfour was less than spectacular in the regular season, though his goals-against average was 2.70, about a quarter goal higher than his rookie year.
Purists don't like Belfour's style (he flops to the ice, smothering shots with his body), and opposing players don't like his surly attitude (his 40 minutes in penalties during the regular season was second highest among the league's netminders). "People always criticize," says Belfour. "Nothing new there. It's been that way my whole life. I don't have to listen."
He just has to stop the puck, with a little help from his friends. During the 11 consecutive victories, Chicago allowed only 22 goals. Belfour has been aided immeasurably by the Hawks' tireless defensemen. No combination of defense-men in the league is stingier than Chelios and Smith, and although both have reputations for chippy play, in the playoffs they've channeled their aggressiveness into legal maneuvers. The Blackhawks' penalty killing in particular has been uncanny; Edmonton went 0 for 19 against them on the power play. By contrast, Chicago scored six power-play goals in 24 chances against Edmonton, and 17 of the Hawks' 55 goals through the first three rounds occurred with a man advantage.
It's a hoary clichè, but Stanley Cups are won with gritty defense, good goaltending, effective penalty killing and successful power plays. The Blackhawks had all those things in reaching the finals. "We have a simple system, we believe in that system, and we play it very hard," says Chicago forward Dirk Graham.
Mission control, all systems are go.