LIGHTNING-BLACKHAWKS WAS A THROUGH-THE-LOOKING-GLASS SERIES, WITH TWO HIGH-POWERED OFFENSES LOCKED IN THE TIGHTEST, TENSEST FINALS IN DECADES. IN THE END, THE RESULT WAS GLEEFULLY FAMILIAR TO CHICAGO FANS: A THIRD STANLEY CUP IN SIX SEASONS
This is an article from the June 22, 2015 issue
THIS IS the kind of strange Stanley Cup finals it was: Extreme weather in the Chicago area before Monday night's Game 6 delayed the delivery of the Cup—the actual trophy—to the United Center. The old bowl finally did arrive, tardy but most welcome, much like the Blackhawks' offense. In this series good things came to those who waited.
The goal that clinched Chicago's third Cup in the last six seasons was superb defenseman Duncan Keith devouring his own second-period rebound and beating Lightning goalie Ben Bishop high to his glove side. In a 2--0 victory, it stood up as the game- and series-winner and made Keith a lock for the Conn Smythe Trophy, bestowed on the MVP of the postseason. It was a heroic goal, a historic goal. But we're here to talk about the pass that set it up.
You're Patrick Kane, a 26-year-old with a reputation for clutch play in big games. But this series has been different. You've scored 10 goals in these playoffs but none against Tampa Bay, and the world had taken notice. For at least a week the hockey cosmos had been carping at you, sniping at a sniper, for that fat doughnut in the goals column.
Most other players would be eager—nay, desperate—to light the lamp. But there was Kane, taking a pass from Brad Richards into the attacking zone, along the right boards with the game tied at zero. He pulled up, scanned the ice and ... did nothing. He had time to skim the paper, pull out his phone, check his horoscope. Finally, as the tension went from excruciating to unbearable, as two Bolts converged on him, he pulled the trigger on the pass to Keith, who scored the goal that broke the back of a young, scary-good team that once upon a time had led this series two games to one.
Let us pause a moment to salute the grit of Bishop, who needed a little more help from his teammates on Keith's game-winner. That, and a fistful of Advil.
In normal times Bishop is an above-average skater and a deft puckhandler, especially when one considers that he is a 6'7" goalie whose nickname in high school was Yao. But these Stanley Cup finals were not normal times, for the NHL in general or Bishop in particular. The Lightning's youthful netminder suffered from a mystery ailment that kept him out of Game 4—he revealed after Game 6 that he had a torn groin muscle—and his occasional forays beyond the crease turned into high drama, the hockey equivalent of Charlie Sheen leaping off the wagon for an evening or Rick Perry deviating from his prepared remarks.
So you could almost hear the theme from Jaws six minutes into Game 5, as Bishop strayed to the top of the left circle. Whiffing on the puck, he succeeded only in setting a hard pick on teammate Victor Hedman, the all-universe defenseman suddenly forced to play Stan Laurel to Bishop's Oliver Hardy. While those two untangled, winger Patrick Sharp pounced on the loose puck, giving the Blackhawks an easy 1--0 lead—they went on to win 2--1, taking a 3--2 series lead—and busting out of his own personal slump: Sharp hadn't found the back of the net since May 5.
It was flat-out discombobulating, in this tight-checking-and-goal-starved series, to see one given up so cheaply. Through the first five games no team led by more than one goal, making this the closest Cup finals in 64 years. A minute before Bishop's blunder his Chicago counterpart, Corey Crawford, committed a similar gaffe, turning the puck over to Tampa Bay's Nikita Kucherov on his own doorstep. But Crawford's giveaway resulted not in a goal for the Lightning, but with Kucherov sailing headfirst over the goalie's lunging save into the left post. The right wing, whose 10 playoff goals included three game-winners, staggered to the dressing room with an apparent right-shoulder injury, done for the night.
"He's a point-per-game guy in these playoffs. He's a big part of our offense," lamented Lightning coach Jon Cooper, who then added, "We battled hard. We got that game tied." Before taking that more optimistic tack, the coach had been in danger of violating Rule No. 76, which he'd drilled into his team, having borrowed it from Wedding Crashers: "No excuses, play like a champion."
Cooper is friends with one of the costars of that movie, Vince Vaughn, who picked up the check for the Lightning's coaching staff at a Chicago steak house on the eve of Game 4. Vaughn's generosity provoked some grumbling among Windy City fans, who wondered what part of "home ice advantage" the thespian didn't understand. Their concerns were groundless. Vaughn (a big Blackhawks fan) picked up the tab; Chicago picked up wins in Games 4 and 5, leaving it on the cusp of a third Stanley Cup in six seasons. In today's NHL, with a hard salary cap that makes it all but impossible to keep good teams together, that's about as close to a dynasty as you're going to see.
THE DESPONDENT Lightning fans filing glumly out of Amalie Arena after Game 5 mingled oddly with legions of costumed adults, some bewigged, others bristling with plastic armaments. On this weekend the NHL shared Tampa with Metrocon, a huge gathering of anime aficionados.
"You get the mustache at Party City," said a man dressed as Master Roshi—from the series Dragon Ball, of course—standing outside the convention center, responding to a compliment on his faux eyebrows. "Cut it in half, trim it, you got eyebrows."
A cosplay convention was a fittingly surreal setting for a series that had gone early through the looking glass. In each of the first four games the team with more shots on goal—the team that spent more time possessing the puck—lost. The superior face-off team lost three of those four games. The Lightning, the NHL's top-scoring team this season, mustered but a single goal in three of their losses and none in their fourth. For each team's top-shelf sniper—Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos and Chicago's Kane—goals were tougher to come by than, well, dragon balls.
It was a bad time for the NHL's stars to go AWOL. June 10 brought ill tidings from Arizona, where the Glendale city council had voted to dissolve the 15-year lease agreement with the Coyotes to play at the Gila River Arena. Short on cash, the city appears to be searching for a way to cut millions in losses. While it probably won't work—Coyotes co-owner Anthony LeBlanc described as "completely ludicrous" the city's attempt to, in the words of one team lawyer, "renege on a valid contract"—Glendale's move clouds the long-term future of a franchise already plagued with a history of instability.
Hard to say which was less welcome for the league: the news from Arizona or the sight of 82-year-old ex-con Alan Eagleson at the Blackhawks' morning skate before Game 3 at the United Center. Eagleson, a former player agent and the first executive director of the NHL Players' Association, served six months in prison in 1998 for, among other crimes, skimming money from tournaments and defrauding both the NHLPA and his personal clients. Eagleson's presence at NHL's showcase event was stunningly inappropriate. Imagine Bernie Madoff making a cameo at a holiday party thrown by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
League officials were also a bit red-faced after that night's game, a 3--2 Bolts win televised on NBCSN, drew lower ratings in 38 markets than Team USA's group-stage victory over Australia in the Women's World Cup. As it happened, NBC Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus had a suggestion to help broaden the NHL's appeal. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Lazarus—clearly unfamiliar with the term lumbersexual—advocated for tonsorial reform. "The players won't like this, but I wish they all would stop growing beards in the postseason," he said. "Let's get their faces out there. Let's talk about how young and attractive they are."
Lazarus was roundly mocked. As detailed above, the NHL has bigger problems than unruly facial hair. But the fact is that unlike Kane in the first three games of the finals, Lazarus had a point. Come May the dressing rooms of the league's remaining teams resemble a mix between an Amish meetinghouse and a mass audition for a Teen Wolf remake. Perhaps a compromise could be struck. While they needn't shear their beards, perhaps players could be more meticulous about trimming them—particularly those unfortunately scraggly mustaches that so often accompany them. Jonathan Toews, this means you.
SOME GUYS rock the beards better than others. Take Hedman, the Lightning's 6'3", 233-pound puck-rushing, playmaking defenseman. "It may or may not have occurred to me," allowed one staunch Chicago fan, a fortysomething woman, "that [Hedman] looks like a cross between Brad Pitt and Thor."
Compared with forwards, defensemen require a longer gestation period before they become dominant in the NHL. The gestation period for Hedman, the second pick in the 2009 draft, officially ended this season. A fractured finger cost him 18 games in October and November, and possibly the Norris Trophy, which goes to the league's best blueliner. He was the best player in the finals. The plays he made to set up the Lightning's two goals in their Game 3 win were far more memorable than the goals themselves. From behind his own net in the first period, he saw winger Ryan Callahan near the far blue line. From 120 feet, he cranked a slap-pass that found the tape of the stick of Callahan, whose rocket shot caromed off the crossbar, and in.
With the game tied 2--2 late in the final period, Hedman entered the offensive zone at full steam. Calling to mind an NFL tight end in the Bolshoi Ballet, he stickhandled his way through retreating Blackhawks, cut left, and then fed center Cedric Paquette, who redirected the puck past Crawford for the game-winner. "It took a few years," Cooper declared after the game. "But Victor Hedman has arrived."
The eminently quotable Cooper stood in stark contrast to the gimlet-eyed Quenneville. The Chicago coach is known less for his badinage than his alchemist's knack for mixing up his forward lines. After consecutive losses in Games 2 and 3, Q got busy with his Cuisinart. His best move was to take Sharp, who'd been somnambulating through the postseason on the third line, and—this seemed counterintuitive—promote him to the top unit with Toews and the ageless, dangerous Marian Hossa. Suddenly Sharp looked, well, sharp again. After generating numerous quality chances in Game 4, he cashed in Bishop's giveaway to silence Amalie Arena early in Game 5.
But Chicago's best forward in the series was not its best known forward. Pittsburgh native Brandon Saad, 22, is a 6'1", 204-pound bundle of fast-twitch fibers who emerged during the finals as the Blackhawks' most consistent scoring threat—remarkable on a roster featuring future Hall of Famers Toews and Kane. In Game 4, with the home team desperate to avoid falling into a 3--1 series crevasse, Saad saved the day during a third-period goalmouth scramble. His ungainly backhand found the five-hole of Andrei Vasilevskiy, Bishop's greenhorn backup, broke a 1--1 tie and put the Hawks back in the series.
"He's a great player, a powerful player," praised Kane, who for his part couldn't buy a goal until the deciding game—and Quenneville seemed O.K. with that. Even when Kane wasn't scoring, he was occupying the other team's top defenders (in this case, Hedman) and doing, says the coach, "a lot of other things that are healthy for our team game."
The truth was, the Blackhawks had tamped down their fire-wagon tendencies to better defend the Lightning. Offensive chances were sacrificed for defense. "Joel is very patient," says the legendary Scotty Bowman, who has close ties to Tampa Bay (where he winters), but closer ties to Chicago: his son, Stan, is the team's GM. "There are certain things [the Blackhawks] have to do. They have to be on the right side of the puck. He doesn't want to play a wide-open game against these guys."
As the series wore on, the Lightning, despite their youth, seemed to wear down slightly. Chicago did a better job of disrupting rushes, obstructing opposing forwards as they entered the offensive zone. The Blackhawks clogged shooting lanes and formed a fortress around Crawford, who sparkled down the stretch, yielding two goals in the final three games, all Chicago wins.
Not so Kane, whose drought came to an end with just over five minutes to play. Saad rushed up the left side, pulling the defense to him, then dropped the puck back to Richards, who slid it across to number 88, whose one-timer sealed the series. Before commissioner Gary Bettman handed the Cup to Toews, the Blues Brothers belted out over the P.A. system:
Oh, baby, don't you want to go
Back to that same old place
Sweet home, Chicago.