Toews with his Conn Smythe. (Reuters)
A couple of seasons ago, the Chicago Blackhawks were the team on the rise, having added talent such as Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith. This year, they entered as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, and they had added Marian Hossa to the mix making them even more formidable. They had some goalie questions early, but resolved those by relying on Antti Niemi, a move that worked out very well for Chicago.
They finished the regular season with the second best record in the Western Conference and made their way through the Nashville Predators, Vancouver Canucks, and San Jose Sharks to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals for a matchup with the Philadelphia Flyers. The Blackhawks were looking for their first Cup since 1961, the longest drought in the league. The Flyers, meanwhile, wanted their first Cup since 1975. One fanbase was going to see a long wait for the title end, but which one would it be?
Chicago took the first two games of the series at home, but then Philly returned the favor once the games were played on their home ice. The Blackhawks then won game five convincingly, and headed back to Philadelphia for game six, the Stanley Cup on the line. I covered game six briefly already, but it probably deserves more discussion.
It was a great game, and a great series to boot, and the Flyers definitely played well, and played much better than game five. Still, last night Chicago was clearly the better team in my eyes. They outshot the Flyers 41-24, and if not for a semi-fluky Scott Hartnell goal Philadelphia would have lost in regulation. They didn't, of course, and kudos to them for taking the game to overtime. Alas, once there they still lost on a Patrick Kane goal. At Chicago's nadir, they ended up with the first overall pick in the NHL Draft and took Kane. Now, a few seasons later, he scored the goal that won them the Stanley Cup. It is a goal that will presumably live on in Blackhawks, if not Chicago sports, lore, though it would have been nice if it wasn't a pretty soft goal.
For all of Michael Leighton's heroics against Boston, against Chicago he certainly didn't have the same panache. Not that such a turn of events was surprising. He is, after all, Michael Leighton, and he was waived earlier this season for a reason. Plus, the Blackhawks' offense is a bit more potent than the Bruins'. He did play well in this game, stopping 37 shots, but he didn't stop the last one, and he should have.
As such, the Flyers saw their surprise run end. After struggling through the regular season and only making the playoffs on the final day of the season, they managed to overcome the odds, including beating Boston after falling behind 3-0 in the series, and they gave Chicago a run for it's money. Danny Briere ended up the top point scorer in the playoffs with 30. Mike Richards had 23, while Claude Giroux and Ville Leino both emerged on the scene in the postseason, both scoring 21 points, though Leino did that in only 19 games. Plus, of course, there was Chris Pronger's great play on the blueline. He may be unlikeable, but he's an excellent player, and a big reason the Flyers made it this far.
Ah, but this should be a time for celebrating the Blackhawks as opposed to eulogizing the Flyers. Jonathan Toews ended up with the Conn Smythe Trophy despite only scoring three points, all assists, in the Stanley Cup Finals. Still, he was second in scoring with 29 points (and had the highest PPG of anybody who played in the Finals) and contributed in other ways. I certainly don't have any qualms with him winning that award. Then, there was Kane and his 28 points, Patrick Sharp and his 11 goals and 22 points, Dustin Byfuglien and his 11 goals, and much more. Dave Bolland was a tremendous defensive forward, and managed to chip in eight goals and 16 points as well.
Of course, you have to mention the outstanding defensive tandem of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Keith might be the best defenseman in the league, and Seabrook isn't far behind. Then, there's Niemi's solid goaltending. After taking over for Cristobal Huet, he never looked back. Sure, he had a great team in front of him, but his 2.63 GAA and .910 SV% are both impressive. Clearly, he's found himself a home for the future.
Plus, there's Marian Hossa. Sure, he only managed three goals and 15 points in this year's postseason, but he also played great defense and was a definitive contributor on this team. Hossa, of course, was playing in his third straight Finals with his third team. With Pittsburgh in 2008, he lost to Detroit. With Detroit in 2009, he lost to Pittsburgh. Finally, he found himself on the right side of the Stanley Cup Finals. He's been a great player for many years, and likely has several more seasons in him (and he'd better with his contract) but for him to win the Cup this year after being so tantalizingly close the last two years was tremendous. After Toews lifted the Cup briefly, he handed it right over to Hossa.
So now, the 2009/2010 NHL season is over. This offseason, the NHL Draft will happen, free agents will move, all that kind of stuff. Not that the Chicago Blackhawks and their fans are concerned with that right now. They've got a parade to have. Congratulations to the Blackhawks for winning the Cup, the franchise's first in many, many years. With this team, I'd be very surprised if it's a long wait before the next one.
Now, if you would like, enjoy some photos of the celebration: