In two desperate, stunning and unforgettable strikes, the season that nearly never was ended with a series that will live forever. Bryan Bickell and Dave Bolland scored goals 17 seconds apart, the last with 59 seconds to play, to lift the Blackhawks to a thrilling six-game triumph over the game and equally deserving Bruins. In the center of the ice after the final horn sounded, Chicago captain Jonathan Toews mouthed the words, "I can't believe this," to teammate Corey Crawford. The goalie's answer, give or take a forgivable unprintable, was: "Never, no way."
The 2013 Stanley Cup finals was a triumph not just for Chicago. Five months ago, as the NHL crawled out of the rubble of its third lockout in two decades, nobody—not the owners, not the players and certainly not commissioner Gary Bettman or union chief Donald Fehr—could have drawn up anything as perfect as this series, a marquee matchup between two Original Six franchises that turned out to be one of the most competitive and compelling finals in recent memory. In six games and more than 435 minutes of hockey, including an exhausting triple-overtime opener in Chicago, neither team ever had more than a two-goal lead. Both the Bruins and the Blackhawks had chances to go up two games by Game 4 but blew them with losses in overtime on home ice. The cuticle-shredding drama and fierce pace of play all added up to exactly what the NHL needed in a year that began with the hockey world facing the possibility of a season lost to a labor stoppage: a reason to talk about the game based on what happened on the ice, not off of it.
In this finals, supporting players became headliners: Blackhawks third-line center Andrew Shaw, who was passed over in both the 2009 and '10 drafts, scored the winner in Game 1; unheralded Bruins winger Daniel Paille celebrated his graduation from the fourth line to the third by netting winners in Games 2 and 3. Headliners became casualties: Chicago winger Marian Hossa, tied for the team lead in playoff scoring before Game 3, was scratched for that contest (after skating in warmups) with what the team would only describe as an upper-body injury; Toews sat on the bench for the entire third period of Game 5 after taking a shot to the head from Boston defenseman Johnny Boychuk; and Bergeron, the Bruins' brilliant two-way center, left the same game in an ambulance after trying to play through what was reportedly a spleen injury. He and Toews were both back on the ice for Game 6.
The action was so relentless—and the casualties were piling up so fast—that after Game 2, Boston winger Jaromir Jagr, 41, joked that he was becoming concerned for the fans. "If you have a bad heart, you might get a heart attack," Jagr warned. "For young people it's pretty exciting to watch. Old people, don't watch it."
July 1, 2013
At least by NHL standards, plenty of fans did watch, though. Ratings on NBC and the NBC Sports Network were robust: the games averaged 5.4 million viewers per game, the best in nearly 20 years. "It's only fitting," said Blackhawks winger Patrick Sharp after Game 4, "that two of the oldest teams would give people a series for the history books."
For nearly two weeks, the Blackhawks and the Bruins traded haymakers like heavyweight fighters and tactical adjustments like chess masters. In a 2--1 overtime victory in Game 2, Boston coach Claude Julien used a rope-a-dope strategy, letting the Blackhawks punch themselves out early—Chicago bolted to a 23--6 advantage in shots on goal—before intensifying his team's forecheck and turning the neutral zone into rush hour on the Mass Pike. The congestion took away the stretch passes that highly skilled Chicago likes to use to create space for its speedy forwards.
Chicago made several changes after Boston ground out another workmanlike 2--0 win in Game 3. The Blackhawks were badly beaten 40--16 on face-offs (Bergeron, who until his injury was making a strong case for the Conn Smythe Trophy, won an astonishing 24 of 28), so in Game 4, Chicago coach Joel Quenneville had his wingers cut hard toward the dots to skew the odds on 50-50 pucks. Over the next three games, Chicago and the Bruins were exactly even on draws, 99--99.
Early in the series Chicago seemed spooked by Boston's aggressive defensemen, particularly the 6'9" Chara. The Blackhawks were reluctant to work the puck behind the Bruins' punishing defense. Only after the Blackhawks made the bruising commitment to engage the Bruins' defense behind the goal line (to win puck battles) and in front of Rask (to establish screens) were they able to turn the tide of the series. Hitting Chara is a bit like running head-on into a U-Haul, but the cumulative tenderization of the Boston captain finally won some benefits. Chicago took Game 4 6--5; Chara, who entered the series +12 in the playoffs, was on the ice for five of the Blackhawks' goals. In Chicago's 3--1 win in Game 5, Chara was on the ice for all three. "At times in the first couple of games we were giving him a little bit too much respect by trying to keep the puck away from him," Toews said before Game 4. "He's not a guy that we should be afraid of. We should go at him.... We can expose him."
Another Quenneville adjustment in Game 4 turned out to be the most important move of the series. Down two games to one, he reunited the high-powered line of Toews and wingers Bickell and Patrick Kane. Quenneville had used the line intermittently during the season and went to it to help his team climb out of a 3--1 series hole against the Red Wings in the Western Conference semifinals.
Kane's marksmanship, Toews's playmaking skills and defensive acumen, and Bickell's power game are a natural fit, but Quenneville usually prefers to spread his assets to different lines. The rejiggering paid off almost immediately: Toews and Kane, who would be named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoffs MVP, scored just 2:08 apart to give Chicago a 3--1 lead in the second period of a frenetic game in which the offensive wizardry was augmented by goaltending ineptitude.
For all of Quenneville's tinkering, Cup fortunes, as usual, came down to the men in net: the fiery Rask and Chicago's unflappable Crawford. Both goalies were understudies during their teams' recent title runs, Rask under Tim Thomas in 2011 and Crawford under Antti Niemi and Cristobal Huet in 2010. "You can learn a lot from success," says Crawford, "but sometimes you learn more from being challenged. It might not show on the outside, but it toughens you up and gets you through the ups and downs of those long series."
Both goalies had plenty of learning experiences in Game 4. The normally sublime Rask, who allowed just two goals in four games to the powerful Penguins during a sweep of the Eastern Conference finals, coughed up six, spitting out rebounds with uncharacteristic abandon. Crawford allowed five, with each shot beating him on the glove side. That led Hockey Night in Canada analyst and former NHL goalie Daryl Reaugh to tweet, "Tonight the joke has resurfaced: What do Michael Jackson and Corey Crawford have in common? Both wore/wear a glove for no apparent reason."
In backup Ray Emery—who won 17 of 18 starts during the regular season and actually finished ahead of Crawford (19-5-5) in the Vezina voting—Quenneville had a solid alternative if he was worried about Crawford's catching woes. But he never considered a change, saying, "Corey has been fantastic for us and puts bad games behind him better than anyone."
Before Game 5, Crawford did make one change: he came out sporting a new glove with red piping in the mesh instead of his worn white one. A goalie changing gloves in the middle of the finals is like a driver changing cars a few minutes before the Indy 500—it's nearly unheard of. But then, Crawford doesn't play the usual netminding mind games.
The psychological profile for most goalies looks like an EKG on hyperdrive. Here is Glenn Hall losing his lunch before most games. There is fellow Hall of Famer Patrick Roy talking to his goalposts. Former WHA and NHL goalie Gilles Gratton was reincarnated, he claimed, from a medieval Spanish soldier. And the Flyers' Ilya Bryzgalov has broken off on postgame tangents about how stars align with planets. Even Rask is prone to moments of, well, madness. After a shootout loss in the minors he hurled a milk crate onto the ice. Got temper?
"Nothing fazes [Corey], really," says defenseman Duncan Keith. "If he lets one in, he's right back at it the next shift. And he'll talk to you before games. He's so relaxed. He's almost normal." For a goalie—for anybody, really—Crawford is tranquility personified. Other teams can have Axl Rose in goal. The Blackhawks will keep Perry Como, thank you very much.
Whether it has been Rask, or the Red Wings' Jimmy Howard, or the Kings' Jonathan Quick, Crawford has often found himself in the position of being a good goalie going up against a better one—someone, in other words, who wasn't going to steal wins for his team. It's a notion that makes his teammates bristle with indignation. "That's ridiculous," says Toews. "People may not give him his due all the time, and I'm not sure he cares about taking credit, but we don't get here without Corey."
"It seems like the games get bigger and Corey gets better," says Quenneville. "But the way he goes about his business, it's like the spotlight will always be on someone else. And he's fine with it. He doesn't need to get noticed; he just needs to win hockey games."
Crawford let his numbers do most of his talking. He won 16 games and led all goaltenders with a 1.84 GAA in the playoffs.
Perhaps the reason that Crawford doesn't act like a goalie is that he wasn't originally planning to be a goalie. He played forward in Ch√¢teauguay, Que., until he was eight. But when Roy backstopped the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup title in 1993, Crawford was hooked. He played an old VHS tape of Roy's theatrics until the tape started to fray. His dad, Trevor, a former collegiate winger and Corey's coach at the time, tried to talk him out of the position, saying that goalies got more pressure and criticism dumped on them than anyone else. But Crawford wasn't the type to be frazzled. "Next shot, next save," as he likes to say. "No big deal." What is Crawford like before a playoff overtime? "Same as if he's getting ready for the first period in an exhibition game," says Kane. "Honestly, with Corey you wouldn't know the difference."
After the Blackhawks chose him with the 52nd pick of the 2003 draft, it took Crawford, 28, seven years to win the starting job in Chicago. He finished fourth in voting for the Calder Trophy after an excellent rookie year in 2010--11 (2.30 GAA, .917 save percentage), but then fell victim to the sophomore jinx last season (2.72, .903), which ended when Coyotes goalie Mike Smith outplayed him decisively during Phoenix's six-game defeat of the Blackhawks in the first round.
When Crawford was out of action for two weeks in February with an upper-body injury, he and goalie coach Stephane Waite began watching tapes of the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist, who won the Vezina Trophy in 2011--12. Once Crawford returned to the lineup, he began to overhaul his game, sliding back in his crease, widening his stance and forcing his 6'2", 208-pound frame lower so he could cover more of the bottom of the net as Lundqvist does. He lowered his GAA this season to 1.94. Though he has never made a national team at any level, he seems a lock to be one of Canada's goalies at the Sochi Olympics next February.
"When you're down, you can kick and scream, but you know it won't get you up," Crawford says. "None of that makes you better. It won't help you stop the next shot if you're thinking about one that went by you." Crawford actually said those words during Chicago's 24-game regulation unbeaten string in March. His ability to retain them and put them into action against the Bruins in Games 5 and 6 was his best save of the season.
After a scintillating finals, where does the NHL go from here? The Blackhawks could well see themselves back in the finals next year. Their roster isn't likely to be decimated as it was after their last title, in 2010, when the salary cap forced them to move valued role players Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Kris Versteeg. Bickell figures to cash in as an unrestricted free agent this summer, but the prospective loss of other UFA's—forwards Michal Handzus and Viktor Stalberg, defenseman Michal Rozsival and goalie Ray Emery—wouldn't be catastrophic. Chicago's stacked and balanced lineup, with an under-30 core of Toews, Kane, Crawford, Keith and fellow defenseman Brent Seabrook, should keep the club poised for another run at the Cup in 2013--14.
The Bruins' future is more uncertain. The defense looked tired in the finals, especially the 6'9" Chara, who's 36. The playoff seasoning for talented young blueliners Torey Krug, 22, Dougie Hamilton, 20, and Matt Bartkowski, 25, will serve them well. But winger Nathan Horton, a UFA who led the league at +21 this postseason, is expected to sign elsewhere this summer. The club will probably use a good chunk of its available cash to sign Rask, a restricted free agent, to a long-term extension.
As for the league as a whole, the finals turned an upside-down season into a late-June Christmas present. And just as Quenneville made adjustments to make the Blackhawks better, so must the league adjust to its success. Attendance was strong this season, with 16 of 30 clubs boasting arenas filled to 100% or more of capacity. And NHL executives are projecting a $1 billion revenue jump over the next three seasons. Now it's up to the NHL to build on the momentum and success of 2013. It's time to move the financially troubled Coyotes and end the drama in Phoenix. It's time to announce that NHL players will be allowed to participate in the Olympics in 2014—for all the scheduling headaches they present for the league, the Games would be a p.r. bonanza for the game. "I think [the NHL] and the players share a common goal to grow this sport to unparalleled heights," says deputy commissioner Bill Daly, "and we are all excited to get there."
For a good blueprint for how to recover from setbacks, the NHL needs look no further than the way Crawford handled himself in the finals: Keep cool and play the game.
"It's only fitting," said Sharp, "that two of the oldest teams would give people a series for the history books."
What Comes Next
After the first Original Six finals in 34 years, here are six things to look for as a rejuvenated NHL heads into 2013--14
1. Are the outdoors really all that great?
Just how many al fresco games does the NHL need? The Winter Classic has been a hit with players and fans alike—and a revenue bonanza for the league—but will next year's spate of six outdoor games (including one at Dodger Stadium between the Kings and the Ducks on Jan. 25) dilute the novelty of roofless hockey?
2. The names remain the same.
After being eliminated from the playoffs, the Rangers and the Canucks swapped coaches (and personalities), with the personable Alain Vigneault heading to New York and the combustible John Tortorella going to Vancouver. Can Vigneault unleash his new offensive stars? And can Tortorella make his new club tougher?
3. The pains of a tight-fitting cap.
What effects will the $6 million reduction in cap space per team have? Such unrestricted free agents as the Bruins' Nathan Horton and the Blackhawks' Bryan Bickell could have a hard time finding big paydays. But clubs with wiggle room—the Islanders and the Jets are two—could go on spending sprees.
4. Where do the Penguins go from here?
Pittsburgh swung for the fences—loading up with such stars as Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow at the trade deadline—only to come up short in the playoffs. The team's problems in goal remain unsolved, and a battered Sidney Crosby was subpar against the physical Bruins. G.M. Ray Shero has his work cut out.
5. Is Patrick Roy a Hall of Fame coach?
The new coach of the Avalanche worked magic in goal while winning four Cups for the Canadiens and Colorado. But the Avs have been a weak franchise in the 10 years since Roy, the former coach of the QMJHL's Quebec Remparts, retired. Can he use this Sunday's No. 1 draft pick to bring Colorado back to the top of the NHL?
6. West is East and East is West.
The Jets' move to the Western Conference and the Blue Jackets' and the Red Wings' moves to the East will reduce travel schedules and should help all three clubs. The Capitals and the Penguins, meanwhile, move to the same division, and the jolt that will give to their already heated rivalry should be good for the entire league.