My sports girl secret? I love soccer. I don't follow it, but I played it in high school, it's a lot of fun, and seriously, after hockey players, I think soccer players are the most hard-working, talented athletes out there.
Probably the main reason I don't follow soccer as a professional sport is that watching it on TV cannot even begin to capture the excitement and thrill of a live, professional-level soccer game. You doubt it? Look at the insane levels of soccer dedication in Europe and South America. Heck, people have been trampled to death in riots that have followed soccer games.
By comparison, American and Canadian fans - yes, even those crazy Habs fans in Montréal, setting fire to their own city - are downright mild.
This commercial is awesome, and demonstrates exactly what I'm talking about.
The Chicago Fire has been around for several years in Chicago. If you think hockey gets ignored, try being a soccer fan around here. The Fire won their league trophy in 1998 and have also won the U.S. Open Cup four times. I would be willing to bet that if you walked up to the average Chicagoan and asked them to name even one player on the Fire, most of them would first ask you who the Fire are, followed by, "We have a pro soccer team?", which would then make the point of asking for any names redundant. No, I cannot name any players, either.
But the Fire just might be the thing to fill the summer gap for me. It's high-paced, exciting, the athletes are in tremendous shape, and it's just as thrilling as hockey. But played minus the sticks and bladed feet and helmets and protective gear.
Chicago skyline lit up in honor of the Chicago Blackhawks
May 30, 2010
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When the nearly-full moon rose above Lake Michigan late on Saturday evening, it was Blackhawks-red. Even the skies above were celebrating the Blackhawks' wild win over the Flyers that night at the United Center.
The 2009-2010 NHL season is going to be memorable for a lot of reasons - and perhaps most of all for the playoffs.
There has been a lot of talk on both sides of the ice of both Chicago and Philadelphia being "teams of destiny".
Chicago, an "Original Six" team, currently holds the longest Stanley Cup drought in history - 49 years. In fact, they've been waiting to hoist another Cup longer than the Flyers have been in existance (1967). The Blackhawks last won a Cup when the likes of hockey greats Stank Mikita, Bobby Hull, and Pierre Pilote graced the ice. The team had its share of ups and downs over the years, but as recently as 2004 was dubbed "the worst franchise in professional sports". When Rocky Wirtz took over the reins to the fanchise when his father, Bill, died, he set the stage for one of the most remarkable turnarounds in sports history. After making it most of the playoffs last year, Chicago was a strong favorite throughout this season to go all the way to the Finals this year, and they did not disappoint. The team is rich with talent, speed, and depth - not to mention several players who will likely be the faces of hockey for years to come.
Philadelphia came into the season with a good lineup, and early in the season, there were many who might've put money on them to go far. They had talent and were solid. They had a lot of midseason struggles, including injuries, a mid-season slump, and a change of coaches, and finished out the season with only 88 points - as stated earlier, enough points to make them rank 18th overall in the league. They squeaked into the 2010 playoffs literally on the last game of the season with an overtime shootout over the Rangers. They surprised a lot of people by taking out the NJ Devils in round one. The Flyers then made a historic effort in round effort against the Boston Bruins, becoming the 4th team in NHL history to come back from a 0-3 hole and win a playoff series. In the Eastern Conference finals, it appeared that the Canadiens had finally run out of gas, and the Flyers knocked the Cinderella story out of the running.
So you would think that with backgrounds like these, both teams would come out with guns blazing, ready to to play, as most sportswriters predicted, a tight, solid, close-scoring game of hockey.
About the only thing that most sports forecasters got right was the "close-scoring" part, as the game finished out 6-5 in Chicago's favor.
Although Chicago had finished out their season on Sunday, and the Flyers nailed their berth on Monday, for whatever reason, the first game of the Finals round wasn't slated until Saturday. A touch of rust was evident on both teams, as were high-flying emotions, and game 1 may have been the wildest ride witnessed in SCF history since 1982, the last time that 5 goals were scored in the first period. Coach Quenneville of the Hawks called it "'Shootout at the OK Corral."
But, to be honest, it was the kind of game you might have realistically expected (if not desired to have seen) for these two teams under the circumstances.
The two teams generally play each other only once during the regular season, so to an extent, there had to be a lot of "getting a feel for the other guys" kind of play going on. The two teams are closely matched on lines and talent; there was plenty of speculation about how the big name players/first lines would match up, and how Byfuglien and Pronger would battle it out on the ice. You could see the two shoving at each other in front of the Flyers crease.
Emotions were clearly running high on both sides of the ice, as neither team has been in the Finals for years, and no matter which team wins, they're going to break a huge drought. After Tomas Kopecky scored what turned out to be the GWG at 8:25 in the 3rd period, Flyers captain Mike Richards slammed his stick against his team's own goal, causing it to shatter. Usually it's Burish or Bolland that inspires that kind of anger, not the talented Slovakian.
Both teams had not played a game in five days, and that was obvious in the sloppy play from both teams. The Blackhawks racked up three stupid penalties in the first period, but while the Flyers were able to capitalize on one of those, the Hawks also scored once while they were short-handed as well.
On the other side of the ice, Philadelphia got called for no penalties. The Broad Street Bullies, penalty-free? Say it ain't so. Brent Seabrook got whacked in the face hard enough to draw blood - twice. Those weren't the only blatant penalties the refs missed, either. You want to know how really weird and unbelievable that is? The Flyers became the first team since 1953 to not be called for any penalties in a SCF game. The last time that happened was for the Bruins, against Montreal in game 5 of the 1953 playoffs.
Neither team played great in the first 40 minutes; they seemed determined to make it an offensive battle, not a defensive one. The Flyers peppered Niemi with 17 shots in the first round and scored three times; while the Hawks only had 9 shots on Leighton and scored twice.
There hasn't been a 5-goal first period in the Stanley Cup Finals since 1982 (Islanders vs. Canucks).
In the second period, this flipped, with the Hawks racking up 15 SOGs with three goals, and the Flyers getting 9 SOGs and two goals. When the Blackhawks took their 5-4 lead, the Flyers' coach pulled Michael Leighton at 15:18 and put Brian Boucher in the pipes. Boucher, you recall, took two sprained knees just 2-1/2 weeks ago. The Flyers have been playing musical chairs in their crease all season, but it was astounding that Boucher would be put in the game last night. Now the question is who will start for Philly in game 2? If it's Leighton, will he be affected by being pulled in game 1? If it's Boucher, is he healthy enough to play the kind of game that the Final round demands?
Although the Flyers scored once more against Chicago to make it 5-5, after that goal, Niemi did what he does best - buckle down and slam the door shut. In fact, the third period was markedly different than the first two, with the two teams having nearly even SOGs (8 and 6), but the Blackhawks playing the kind of game that we're accustomed to seeing - and the reason that the Hawks have consistently out-scored their opponents during the third period throughout these playoffs.
All over the ice, for both teams, game 1 was a mess, there is no doubts about it. The defense on both sides was wide-open. As a result, both teams had the other goalie's numbers, and made the most of whatever chances they got. While there was some post-game talk about bad ice, more should be said about bad plays.
We haven't seen the Blackhawks play quite so bad in a while. The Flyers were a mess, too; let's give a shake of the head towards both teams. I would expect both teams to watch a lot of game tape from last night's game, re-find their focus, and come out on Monday night for a hardcore hockey game.
A few other random observations about game 1:
- The top lines for both Chicago and Philadelphia disappeared - or maybe they cancelled each other out. In fact, most of the top-line players came away with negative numbers after this game. The second, third, and fourth line players were the heavy scorers.
- Remember the game earlier in the playoffs where the wrong Blackhawk got sent to the penalty box? It happened again last night, when Brian Campbell got sent to the box on what should've been Niklas Hjalmarsson's high sticking. Seriously, refs, get glasses already; you're ON the ice and missing blatant penalties right in front of your face, and getting things wrong. Or just get new refs. Either way. Like I said in an earlier article, if the Blackhawks manage to do what we'd all like them to do, it will despite the officiating, which has gone heavily against them throughout the playoffs.
- Blair Betts of the Flyers scored for the first time in 29 games (including regular season).
- Dustin Byfuglien of the Blackhawks had 10 hits. The next most hits any player had was Darroll Powe of the Flyers, with 4.
- The 11 goals scored last night was the most in a Stanley Cup Final game since 1992.
- Jonathan Toews was a perfect 12-0 in the faceoff circle in the first period, and 18-24 overall. He finished the game -3, but still leads players in the playoffs for points.
- Blackhawks goalie Antti Niemi lost his helmet not just once but twice, but never lost his head as he kept the Flyers scoreless in the third period. After taking a puck to his helmet, his strap apparently came loose or broke; after the helmet fell off the second time, he briefly donned his older, gamer-decorated helmet while his Hawks-artwork helm was fixed.
In all, last night's game was unlike anything seen in the Finals in quite some time, and both teams will be hoping to not have a repeat performance this series.
It's just over 8 hours until the first puck drop of the 2010 Stanley Cup Final Round games, which kick off at the United Center (UC) here in Chicago.
For the city as a whole, this is a defining moment in its storied sports history. The Hawks haven't brought Lord Stanley's silver trophy home since 1961 - when some of the Blackhawks greatest legends were kings of the ice.
The Hawks have been through their ups and downs since then. Perhaps no time was its lowest than the late 1990s and the first half of the last decade, when not only was the team not particularly good, but its owner, Bill Wirtz, was the last holdout in world of tech-savvy team owners. Blackhawks fans couldn't even watch home games on TV; Wirtz felt televising home games was a disservice to the season ticket holders - of which there were only a few thousand. Bill Wirtz didn't grasp the idea that in order for people to want to pay to put their butts in the UC seats, they might first want to build a bond with the team via television. Wirtz, known for his frugality and stubbornness, had the nickname "Dollar Bill".
Going to home games at the UC - even just a few short years ago - was a whole different experience. On most nights, a few thousand seats - or more - would be empty. Only a few nights per year would sell out - games against Chicago's long-time rivals, the Detroit Red Wings, for example. Or nights such as a cold day in January 2006 when one of the most talked-about rookies in years, wearing a Penguins jersey, took the ice.
I wish I'd had the sense to buy a season ticket back then, but I was under the mistaken belief that season tickets (even nosebleed) were out of my pocket range. By the time I finally looked into it - and was shocked to discover the Hawks were actually one of the ticket bargains of the league - suddenly season tickets had gone from "How many would you like?" to "We have a waiting list of 7,000 and last year there was a 98% renewal rate."
From worst to first? Chicago has done it, and hope to clinch that "first" title by winning hockey's most revered trophy this week.
I moved to Chicago eleven years ago and immediately took up the Blackhawks fandom; it was a no-brainer as far as I was concerned. My childhood favorites, the Hartford Whalers, were no more, and since my favorite player (up til that time), Kevin Dineen, had left the Hurricanes-neé-Whalers, I no longer felt any ties to that team. Due to having a lot of friends in the Chicago/Midwest who were Blackhawks-fans-from-birth, I was swayed in Chicago's directions before I even made the decision to move there.
There's a lot of talk about "bandwagon" fans lately, and part of me can completely understand why fans who were around during the lean years, supporting the team be it win or lose, can feel a little resentful towards people who maybe are along for the party more than anything.
But the sensible part of my brain - the part tied firmly to my inner core of die-hard hockey fan - is okay with the bandwagon fans. Everybody has to start learning somewhere. If you watched a few hockey games during the Olympics, and it turned you on to how exciting hockey is, great. If you're late to the party and just started watching three weeks ago, great.
The pieces for the current team started falling into place around 2002. A couple of the players who've been around the team the longest - Duncan Keith (26) and Brent Seabrook (25) - played their rookie year in 2005-06, the year after the NHL lockout. Patrick Sharp, a trade aquisition from the Flyers, also played his first season with the Blackhawks that year. Current team Captain, Jonathan Toews, and star forward Patrick Kane both debuted in 2007-08, although they were drafted one year apart. Dale Tallon is credited with putting together all the pieces that resulted in the team we know as the 2009-2010 Chicago Blackhawks: a team deep and solid with skill, speed, talent, and a capacity to adapt, and more importantly, to win.
The team came together piece by piece, but it is clear that this team shares a deep bond. They enjoy spending time together, not only while playing, but off the ice as well. They're incredibly supportive of one another, and have fun playing the game.
This team has already made its mark on Blackhawks history, breaking many team records late in this remarkable season. They won the most games on the road in franchise history. They won the Central Division title, and then went on to win the Western Championship and their berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
And they haven't done it riding on a few key players. The greatness of this team comes from its depth, and the fact that you never know who the next goal scored or next assist or next block will come from. The team is stuffed full of talented, two-way players, who not only shine in their given roles, but can make the plays necessary, no matter which end of the ice they're standing on.
Chicago hockey fans have hungered for a team like this for nearly 50 years. It has been an absolute joy to see the UC jumping again. It is not perhaps since Michael Jordan led the Bulls through their triumphant dynasty reign that the city has known such a deep, powerful team that is on the cusp of inspiring the city for many years to come.
Old and new fans alike are about to witness hockey history over the next two weeks. I'm not going to analyze the Blackhawks more in-depth, toe-to-toe; hockey analysts have been doing that all week, and the conclusion is that this match is a draw. Two equally talented teams, equally deep, with skill to make things happen. Neither has brought home hockey's most coveted trophy in over 35 years.
After last year's run, the Blackhawks were expected to make it this far. At the start of the season, expectations for the Flyers were high, but after stumbling their way through much of the season, they clutched a playoff berth and battled their way to the here and now.
Both teams deserve to be here. Both deserve to win. Only one team can ultimately be the winner, though.
“The support we’ve had from our family, from our fans, everything has been incredible,” team Captain Jonathan Toews said recently. “We want to win it for them, but most of all we want to win it for each and every guy in that locker room.”
Well said, Captain. Now go out there and make us all proud.
From the Wayback Time Machine, I present some pictures from not all that long ago... the January 13, 2006 Blackhawks home game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the first year after the lockout. I was looking for some pictures from games 1999-2004, but I think any pictures I took at those games were on film, not digital cameras, so these are the oldest pictures I have available from my Blackhawks archives.
According to the website, the crowd attendance was 20,541 and the "third sellout" of the 2005-2006 season. I can tell you that if it WAS a sellout, it sure didn't feel like it - there were a lot of empty seats scattered throughout the UC that stayed empty for the entire game.
And if there was a sellout, it was probably due solely to this guy, wearing #87 for the Penguins. That's right, Sidney Crosby playing his first game against the Chicago Blackhawks, at the UC. (Unfortunately, this digital camera sort of sucked, so this is about the only semi-clear shot I have of Crosby from the entire game.)
This was the only game the Blackhawks played against the Penguins for the 2005-06 season, which means I got to witness Crosby's rookie debut against the Hawks. I knew that he was already making history: as one of the most highly-regarded draft picks in hockey history, the rookie was already sporting an "A" on his chest for just under a month at this point.
The funny thing? I don't even remember being particularly impressed by his play that night. At a point when the Hawks were struggling to rebuild, they actually looked better than the Penguins that night. First-year Blackhawk Patrick Sharp was in the lineup that night, as was rookie Duncan Keith - but so were a lot of now-forgotten players.
Look closely at this picture and who do you see? That's right, Patrick Sharp (#10) at the top right, playing his first season with the Blackhawks after being traded from the Philadelphia Flyers. And who is that in front of rookie goalie Adam Munro? Why, it's #2, Duncan Keith, also playing his first - and rookie - season with the Chicago Blackhawks. Sharp was one of the three stars of the game that night.
Oh, look, it's goalie Marc-André Fleury, in his second year with the Penguins. His rookie year had actually been 2003-4, which he also played partially with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles. During the 2004-05 lockout, he played for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. So wow, this game was just chock-full of rookie/newbie goodness.
And here's Martin Lapointe, during his first of three seasons with the Blackhawks after a long career with the Red Wings and the Bruins. Lapointe played one season with the Senators after the Hawks, and is now a scout for the Blackhawks.
And on a last note, this is what the Ice Crew looked like when they were still sponsored by a PG-13 product (Mt. Dew), and thus actually still wore clothes. I liked this look so much better than the current outfits.
Game 4 of the Blackhawks vs Sharks game was incredible on so many levels, the best of which was that the game sealed the deal - with a sweep, no less - that would send the Hawks to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1992. The youngest of the Blackhawks stars, Patrick Kane, wasn't even in kindergarden yet the last time that the Hawks got a good look at the spotlight.
As a long-time fan (11 years and counting) of the Blackhawks, I felt fortunate to go to a decent amount of games this year, especially during the playoffs. Round 3, Game 4, is a game that will remain in my memory a long, long time.
Going into the game, everybody seemed to feel the Blackhawks would sweep the Sharks. I've been a Chicago sports fan long enough to feel cautiously optimistic while simultaneously feeling nauseous with excitement and anxiety.
After stumbling their way through the series against Nashville, and slugging it out against Vancouver, the Hawks came up against the team that had beaten them out for the regular-season best-in-the-West points standing - by a single point. The difference between the two teams was no slimmer than a single OT game.
The Sharks went into the third round weighed down by the "chokers" label. The Blackhawks went into the series with the weight of a year of expectations on their shoulders. Although the Sharks battled tremendously against Chicago, the Hawks continued to adapt, adapt, and adapt, coming up with wins in game after game.
Games 1 and 3 could've easily gone either way - if it wasn't for Antti Niemi's stand-on-his-head performances in both. In the regular season, most people regarded him as a question mark: who was this unknown goaltender, backing up one of the biggest-name teams in the NHL? Could the Hawks make it through a single round - nevermind three rounds - with this guy as starter?
For the record, I've had faith in Niemi since day one, and it has been a thrill to see him manage to earn the starter position and more importantly, pull out the kinds of performances that have kept his team in the running, day in and day out.
Game 4 could've gone either way, too. The Hawks started off, looking solid but doing a whole lot of nothing, with virtually no shots on goal for nearly 15 minutes of the first period. The passes connected, everything looked clean and pretty... oh wait, we've heard this before. Were they trying for pretty?
The Sharks scored at 11:08 into the first period, but it took a few more minutes for the Hawks to rouse themselves and turn things around. They began shooting more and refamiliarizing themselves with the crease. When the Sharks pulled ahead 2-0 on a goal by Marleau just over 7-1/2 minutes into the second, the crowd at the UC for once did not shut up. The fans were not about to let the Hawks roll over and play dead on this one, dammit. They wanted this series over with, and a berth in the Stanley Cup finals firmly in hand.
Apparently, the team realized they wanted that, too, because they pulled together, and tied up the score by the end of the second. The first goal was the tide-changer; Brent Seabrook scored and it was initially waved off as no goal. But after a lengthy review - with the crowd on their feet and seriously PO'ed at the refs - it was determined that the puck had been well over the goal line before being scooped out by one of the Sharks, and the goal was valid.
Hey, how about that? It was pretty sweet, was what it was.
They played "Chelsea Dagger" extra-long for that, and before the end of the period, Dave Bolland scored to make it 2-2. The crowd was entirely fired up by this point, and it would not end until long after the game did.
The Sharks and Blackhawks battled their way through the third period - San Jose trying hard to get at least a point to stay in the series; and Chicago looking to nail the sweep - with the Hawks finally scoring 14:05 into the third (WTG, Big Buff, on another GWG!).
You think the Anthem was deafening? With a minute left on the clock, the entire UC crowd was on its feet, roaring, as the Hawks held off any attempts by the Sharks to breathe life back into their game. San Jose called its time out at 49.3 left.
Play resumed, and Kris Versteeg scored a backhand from the middle of the ice on the empty net to make it 4-2.
People were jumping up and down, screaming, crying, laughing, hugging, singing along to "Chelsea Dagger", and the towels began flying, not just onto the ice but all over the arena. They had to clear the towels (and apparently at least one bra, and some broom heads) off the ice before the game could be finished.
Players and fans alike, on their feet for the final minute of play
The final horn sounded and "Chelsea Dagger" once again blared through the building... the Blackhawks were going to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in nearly two decades!
It hardly felt real on Sunday afternoon. The euphoria, the excitement ... my hands were shaking so bad and my knees were quivering so much that it was all I could do to stay on my feet, and I'm amazed any of my pictures came out without massive hand-shake-blurriness.
Everybody stayed (ok, maybe a disgruntled Sharks fan or two left) to watch the end-of-series handshakes and the presentation of the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl (aka. the Campbell Trophy), which is awarded to the Western Conference playoff champions. The San Jose Sharks might've won the regular season Western Conference standings by a single point; but in the final showdown, the Chicago Blackhawks swept them in four games to determine the ultimate winners in the West.
Team Captain Jonathan Toews abided by league tradition and didn't touch the Campbell Cup. Later, when asked about it, he stated, "It's not what we want to win. They gave us hats tonight so we'll go home with those and we'll be happy about that. We're after something bigger and better. We worked so hard to get here. It's been a long year. There was so much going on and off the ice. Everything that was said and the stories and storylines and all that stuff we've tried our best to ignore. We have a great opportunity. We'll be very excited about it and we'll go work for it. That's what (we're) here for."
Well said, Captain.
As I basically had to get on the road right after the game, I didn't really have much time to absorb the game and the win, and it's sort of all hitting me now, four days later.
This is a unique experience for me as a sports fan. Although I've going to Red Sox games since I was a kid and consider myself a fan, I never really got swept up in "Pennant fever".
Even the year the Red Sox first won the World Series after their long drought (2004), their playoff run hardly seemed "real". (Bear with me, I won't talk baseball long!) As that final series played out, I happened to be in New Orleans. A bunch of us had just had dinner at NOLA (one of Emeril's restaurants) to celebrate my birthday, and after dessert, we headed down Bourbon Street to find a bar that was playing the Red Sox game. One of my friends, Justin, with me was (is) to Red Sox fandom the way that I am to the Blackhawks, so we were primarily looking for a place for him to watch. I don't think any of us expected the Series to be wrapping up that night; none of us thought the Sox were going to sweep.
After poking our heads in a number of establishments, we finally found a bar playing the game around the time of the 7th-inning-stretch. The Sox were up 3-0, which was the same score they ended up winning the game with.
We laughed, we shouted, there may have been some crying going on. Best birthday present ever, and the reason I no longer believe in sports "curses", especially after the Red Sox won the World Series again three years later. As series MVP Manny Ramirez of the Sox said after game 4, "I don't believe in curses, I believe you make your own destination."
It took a few days for that series to sink in, too. I still have the October 28 front pages somewhere; the kind of sports joy I hope to see happen in Chicago this spring.
The questions loomed large on Friday night: Could the Blackhawks play the same game at home that they have been playing so great on the road? Could they stretch the 2-0 lead into 3-0? How much of a factor would the UC home crowd be? Could the Sharks come up with a win to put themselves back into the running?
No matter what happens in this series, this much is true: the San Jose Sharks have not choked. Any writers suggesting otherwise clearly hasn't been watching this series. No - in fact, the San Jose Sharks have given the Hawks a serious battle throughout the series, and games 1 and 3 certainly could've gone either way - if it wasn't for a rookie goaltender from Finland who has shone in his first NHL playoffs.
It is not a stretch by any means to say that goaltender Antti Niemi has not only kept his team in the playoffs run, but has stood on his head to do so, and stole some games along the way - like last night. In his last four games, Niemi has been 1.5 GAA, .959 SV%, and 4-0. For the entire playoffs, he's gotten a highly respectable 2.35 GAA, .935 SV%, and has the best record, 11-4, including two shutouts in the first round. (Leighton and Boucher of the Flyers combine for 11-5.)
It is said that the mark of true champions are not only that they win when they deserve it, but they find ways to win even when they don't. A lot of Hawks fans - and even non-Hawks fans - have watched all three series and felt that the officiating has seemed against the Blackhawks. Despite this, even in games where the opposition took no penalties and Chicago took almost half a dozen, they've still won. If any team has earned their spot heading into the final games of these playoffs, it's the Men of Four Feathers.
Let's look at the games from a pure statistical standpoint:
- In three games, the Sharks have outshot the Hawks, 118-100.
- But the Sharks have only tallied 5 goals to the Hawks 9.
- The Sharks have only taken 9 penalties across three games - none in the first and only two last night. Of the seven they took in Tuesday's game, 2 were given to the same player at the same time in the brawl at game's end (Clowe, for roughing and misconduct). So for all intents and purposes, it might as well be just 8 for the Sharks versus the 14 that the Blackhawks racked up in three games.
- Last night, the first penalty against the Hawks was a bad call, although the remaining five were merited.
Supposedly, Niemi has a "pattern" of 3-1. But he won last night. He made a monster number of saves, but despite that, it also wasn't his best game: he gave up a few juicy rebounds that could've easily been goals if the Sharks had had somebody in the right place or the D-men simply just weren't quicker than the Sharks were, and a lot of San Jose's shots simply went too high or too wide.
The Blackhawks as a whole didn't have a great game, either - they weren't bad, but I'm having a hard time qualifying it as solidly "good", because they were outshot and at times, outplayed in general. Despite the win, there were plenty of moments where they started to look like they were edging towards "playing cute", where they were looking too hard for the "big"/flashy shots, where they sat back on their heels a bit. Especially when they pulled ahead by a goal and there was still around 6 minutes to play. If there's any team left in the playoffs that should know how fast a game can change, it should be the Hawks. (Hello, game 5, Nashville.)
If this has been Chicago's worst game since that game 5 loss in round 2, though, the fans will take it. The team will take it, but will want to improve on it in game 4. The Blackhawks players will be the first to tell you right now that they're trying to stick to playing one game at a time, to play more with a "road mentality", to keep it simple, and to focus on the here-and-now, not the what-might-be.
In addition to all that, however, they have to keep it clean. They've got to stay out of the sin bin, and they've got to help their goalie out more, so Niemi doesn't have to do another stand-on-his-head, 44-save performance.
Because, rest assured, the Sharks are going to be coming out desperate. After all, they have nothing to lose. They threw everything at Chicago the last three games. They shook up their lines in an effort to get past Chicago, and then they threw the kitchen sink at Niemi. They still lost and are down, 0-3.
The Sharks are stating that they're taking inspiration from the Flyers comeback against the Bruins.
The Blackhawks are taking a warning from the same: they don't want to be the Bruins. Not this close to the final round. Not this team.
Sunday is going to be intense.
And if pure faith and belief could lift a city, Chicago would be floating above Lake Michigan.
The question going into the third round for the Western Conference final was who was going to come out on top: the Chicago Blackhawks, with their outstanding record in playoffs road wins, or the San Jose Sharks, defending an at-home record?
We know the answer now, of course: the Blackhawks now lead the series 2-0 and are headed back to the UC in Chicago for game 3 on Friday night.
Sunday's game was all that a fan could want out of a playoff game. It was fast-paced, strong, thrilling; a tight 2-1 victory, with a standout performance by the goalies at both end of the ice. But it was Tuesday's game that was a little more uneven, with the Blackhawks taking a decisive 4-2 second win on the road.
Going into this series, there were a lot of questions on both sides of the conference.
For the Sharks, it was: Will the Sharks choke again? And can we see the same kind of performances we just saw in rounds 1 and 2?
I won't even begin to claim I know the Sharks well, but they certainly put up an outstanding record this year, and if it wasn't for just one extra win or loss, either by San Jose or Chicago, the teams' final Western Conference rankings of 1st and 2nd would've been reversed. This is the kind of Conference final you really want to see: the two top teams duking it out for the right to go onto the Cup round. These are the kinds of teams you want to see in that position: both strong, deep, fast. And, for that extra bit of dramatic flair, the extra bonus: one team that's never won the Cup in its franchise history, and one that hasn't won the Cup in more than twice as many years as the other team has even been in existance (that's 49 years, in case you've been living under a rock; vs. 19 for the other guys).
Anybody who thought that this series wouldn't be one for the history books - no matter what way it ends up - really hasn't been a hockey fan all that long. Although the two teams acknowledged there really wasn't an existing "rivalry" between them going into the series, there is no doubt that there will be one in the future and it will be able to trace its roots to this series.
The Sharks have a lot of talent, and a lot of desire, on their team. San Jose has never won a Cup - heck, they've never even been to the Final Round. So clearly, they would like to go as far as they possibly can. Their team got hot at the right time, and they have battled hard through the playoffs thus far, putting away both the Colorado Avalanche and the Detroit Red Wings.
But standing in their way are the Chicago Blackhawks, who also very badly want to bring hockey's most revered trophy home to the Windy City.
Before the playoffs, the Blackhawks, too, faced a lot of questions: Did they have a goalie who could bring them deep in the playoffs? Could the team be consistent enough to win?
The first round of games against Nashville had fans clutching for stomach antacids as the Blackhawks stumbled against what was perhaps one of the most underestimated teams to make the playoffs, the Nashville Predators. The series started off with an ugly loss at the UC, and the Blackhawks had to fight hard for every win. The first round swung back and forth like a pendulum, before an incredible game 5 at home in Chicago wowed fans and critics alike, and renewed faith in the possibilities of this year's playoffs. Patrick Kane nailed the game-tying goal with mere seconds left in the game, and Marian Hossa redeemed himself for a 5-minute-major by winning the game barely 10 seconds out of the penalty box.
Vancouver was another hard-fought series, as many thought that the Canucks were one of the best matchups for Chicago. Again, Chicago stumbled off the starting blocks at home, losing 1-5, before rallying to take enough games - and take them decisively - to win the series.
Along the way, Blackhawks goaltender Antti Niemi has proven that you don't need prior playoff experience to go deep. Although several rookie goalies started for their teams across the NHL this playoff season, perhaps no other goalie took as much criticism. Who was the guy, a virtual unknown, who had supplanted the Blackhawks highly-paid Huet, to win the starting position? Part of the reason was that fans and critics alike have had such sky-high expectations for the Hawks. Chicago sports fans know better than to get too excited about their teams heading into the playoffs - be it hockey, baseball, or football.
But Niemi has faced it all, keeping his team in the game through the sloppy first series, and standing tall versus Olympic gold medalist Roberto Luongo. He was the first goalie to rack up two shutouts - both in the first round - and on Sunday, he put on a stellar performance that goalies with far more experience would have been proud to call their own.
And while the Blackhawks were definitely inconsistent in the games against Nashville, they came out strong against Vancouver, and even stronger against the Sharks, picking up the first two victories for round 3 in the Shark Tank.
Fortunately for Chicago fans, the team seems to have gotten a serious wakeup call in the form of round 2, game 5, a painful home loss against the Canucks. Since that game, the Blackhawks have been clearly focused on playing their games one at a time, instead of looking down the road to June.
You can see it in their faces and their voices as they have given interviews over the past week. You think the fans want that gleaming silver trophy? They can't possibly want it more than the players want it - and these are players who realize it is in their grasp, and in their own control, to make their way to those final seven games.
The Sharks certainly aren't going to go quietly. They're going to take reassurance from what the Philadelphia Flyers just did to the Boston Bruins, returning from a 0-3 deficit to emerge victors in round 2. Each game - be it at the UC or the HP Pavillion (Shark Tank) are going to keep getting stronger, bigger, badder, meaner. They're going to head into Chicago on Friday and hope to quiet the UC the way that the Blackhawks silenced their own barn.
You can bet the Blackhawks are going to be ready to face them, and give them a great battle.
With all due apologies to Leonard Bernstein ... further proof that me + way too much caffeine & sugar too early in the morning ...
HAWKS SONG (sung to "The Jet Song", West Side Story)
TOEWS: (Spoken) Against the Sharks we need every man we got.
KANE: Who wouldn't wanna belong to the Hawks!
When you're a Hawk,
You're a Hawk all the way
From your first shot on goal
To your last dyin' day.
When you're a Hawk,
If the spit hits the fan,
You got brothers around,
You're a family man!
You're never alone,
You're never disconnected!
You're home with your own:
When company's expected,
You're well protected!
Then you are set
With a capital H,
Which you'll never forget
Till they cart you away.
When you're a Hawk,
You stay a Hawk!
TOEWS: In, out, let's get crackin'.
BYFUGLIEN: Where you gonna find Pavelski?
BURISH: At the game tonight at the Tank.
SHARP: But the ice's neutral territory.
BURISH: (innocently) I'm gonna make nice there! I'm only gonna challenge him.
TOEWS: So everybody dress up sweet and sharp.
Oh, when the Hawks fall in at the big Shark Tank,
We'll be the sweetest dressin' team in hockey pants!
And when the chicks dig us in our Hawk red and black,
They're gonna flip, gonna flop, gonna go daddy mack!
TOEWS: (Spoken) Hey. Cool. Easy. Sweet. Meet Q and me at 7. And walk tall!
EAGER: We always walk tall!
BOLLAND: We're Hawks!
When you're a Hawk,
You're the top bird in town,
You're the gold medal kid
With the heavyweight crown!
When you're a Hawk,
You're the swingin'est thing:
Little boy, you're a man;
Little man, you're a king!
The Hawks are in gear,
Our cylinders are clickin'!
The Sharks'll steer clear
'Cause ev'ry piece of fish bait's a lousy chicken!
Here come the Hawks
Like a bat out of hell.
Someone gets in our way,
Someone don't feel so well!
Here come the Hawks:
Little world, step aside!
Better go underground,
Better run, better hide!
We're drawin' the line,
So keep your noses hidden!
We're hangin' a sign,
Says "Visitors forbidden"
And we ain't kiddin'!
Here come the Hawks,
Yeah! And we're gonna beat
Ev'ry last skatin' team
On the whole rockin' ice!
On the whole!
The tag line on this bad boy should've read "What if Niemi hadn't said no-no?" or
"What if Niemi played like a rookie?" Oh, NHL, such missed copywriting opportunities.
* * *
In post-game interviews last night, Blackhawks forward Kris Versteeg spoke about Antti Niemi's spectacular goaltending performance, stating, "He's been good for us all year. Everyone seemed to be doubting him except us. We're confident in him. We have to give him a lot more help than we did tonight."
It's not to say the Hawks had a bad game, as they certainly did not - they won, 2-1, and they did it in regulation, even ending the game down a man on a Sharks power play.
But there's little doubt that the hardest-working player on the ice that night was a modest Finnish goaltender who has quietly gone about his business - and his business has been to hold his team in the game, even when the team in front of him hasn't been playing their best. (If you doubt that, just look at some of the games vs. Nashville in round 1.)
Anybody who watches hockey with any regularity will tell you that goaltenders can "steal" games - games where the team in front of them is a mess, but they come out with the win, anyway. Or "steal" a game when the opposing team has been relentless, but the winning goalie was an absolute wall. Niemi has done both in the playoffs so far, silencing his doubters along the way.
To be fair, the doubters will never be 100% silenced unless the team hoists the prized silver chalice overhead come June. While obviously it matters - and matters a great deal - how the rest of the team is playing, blame will ultimately fall most mercilessly upon the shoulders of a losing goaltender. (Do you doubt that? Look at Roberto Luongo after his team lost to Chicago in round 2.)
Niemi has been painted as "typically" Finnish: hard-working, solid, modest, stoic. If that's typical, then it should be little surprise that Finland has become a "goalie factory", as those are the kind of personality traits you'd want in a goaltender. You don't want a goalie who is easily flustered, or cannot rebound from a scored goal or a bad game.
The Blackhawks keep talking about how Niemi inspires them to play harder in front of him, to take advantage of the opportunities that he gives them by locking down their goal. It is not simply Versteeg; it has been Jonathan Toews, team captain, and Patrick Sharp, alternative captain, who have been saying this, among others. Repeatedly, in interview after interview, the team keeps repeating their faith in the Finnish rookie, and their belief that he is getting the job done.
Yet the media keeps doubting, keeps questioning, keeps picking away at it, as if one of the team members is going to crack, and say, "Dang, you're right, what are we thinking?"
Time after time, the Blackhawks teammates keep firing right back at the media: Why are you doubting him so much when we clearly have expressed our confidence in him?
Niemi has certainly had his "rookie moments" in the playoffs; he got pulled in the first game of the second round; and he has had some occasional bad moments behind his net while playing the puck. But his team has kept those moments from becoming serious, game-altering moments.
And is he any worse, really, than the other remaining goalies left in the playoffs? Let's compare:
Leighton looks pretty amazing so far, but he's only played the last three games (1 vs MTL and 2 vs BOS). I'm not including Huet, as he only played one period and barely enough playoff stats to register.
If you sort by GAA, Niemi ends up middle of the pack. Save percentage, top 3, and that's with taking the second-highest shots-against total. Wins vs losses, he leads the pack with the most wins, and two shutouts to boot.
I will admit that I supported Niemi from the start of the season because he was a Finnish goaltender, being half-Finnish myself. I hadn't been too impressed with Huet last year, and here was the Blackhawks' first Finnish goaltender ever. (Finnish? Goalie? First of his kind for Chicago? Trifecta of awesome, as far as I'm concerned.)
Now everybody else is seeing in Niemi what the scouts saw: a diamond in the rough.
Niemi has quietly gone about his job, and gotten it done well. He posted seven shutouts (tying for third place league-wide) in the regular season, playing noticeably less games than any other goalie that had an equal or greater amount of shutouts. He has faced down fellow Finnish rookie sensation Pekka Rinne in round one, and he won out over Gold-medal winner Roberto Luongo in round two.
There is no reason to believe that this goalie, with this team, cannot lead this city to the sports trophy that Chicago and its faithful want so much.
Comcast post-game interviews video. If you missed Niemi's awesome save - ok, there were several awesome saves, but I think the best one was the one recapped in this video around the 1:12-1:25 mark. Or, just watch the video below, which is pure highlight reel.
From start to finish, it was the kind of exciting, heart-stopping, high-pressure hockey game that you want to see in the playoffs. Ultimately, however, the Antti Niemi stopped 44 of 45 shots for a .978 save percentage, and the Blackhawks scored twice to win over the San Jose Sharks, 2-1, in the opening game of the Western Conference final series.
It took 11:19 in the first period until somebody scored - Jason Demers of the Sharks, on the second San Jose power play, slapped one that appeared to hit Duncan Keith in the sleeve or hip, and it spun off the top pipe into the net behind Antti Niemi. Despite a few near-whoops moments in his efforts to play the puck behind the net, Niemi otherwise showed exactly why he's been nicknamed the "Finnish Fortress", making save after amazing save for his team.
Chicago got on the board at 7:44 into the second period, with the game-equalizing goal by Patrick Sharp; and Dustin Byfuglien stepped up again to put in the game-winning goal at 13:15 into the third period.
The city collectively holds its breath, waiting for the first game of round 3 to start, and the series ahead for the Blackhawks.
The Blackhawks' marketing mantra for the past two years has been "One Goal" - that goal being the great, gleaming silver trophy that is the Holy Grail of Hockey. During a number of games this season - and post-season - it has seemed like the Hawks took the "One Goal" a little too literally.
Chicago was a powerful team throughout the regular season, and there was no doubt that they would qualify for the playoffs. And here they are, knocking off the Canucks in round two - again - and going on to face the San Jose Sharks for the right to represent the Western Conference in this year's final round.
The team had some bad moments in the first two rounds. The Predators certainly made the series as difficult as possible, and it would be impossible to deny that Antti Niemi managed to help keep his team in some of those games.
Game 5 vs Nashville left the fans' hearts in their collective throats. When it looked like the Preds were going to take it, Patrick Kane nailed in a short-handed goal in the final seconds to force overtime, and then Marian Hossa scored the game-winning goal in OT, creating one of the most thrilling moments throughout the entire playoffs.
After Vancouver stomped on the Blackhawks - on home ice, no less - it seemed like the team just hadn't learned the lessons that the first round had taught them. But Chicago went out and did what Chicago does best - rallied from the losses and went on to take the series, 4-2, with all four wins being 2+ goal differences.
And that brings us to San Jose.
Both teams going into tomorrow's game are equally hungry. Chicago last took it all in 1961. The Sharks - founded in 1991 - have never even been to the final round. They're ranked as the top two teams in the Western Conference, and due to the oddest-of-odd finalists in the Eastern Conference, there's an awful lot of sports writers eager to proclaim this series as the preview for who will hoist the trophy come June.
To quote Han Solo, "Great, kid; don't get cocky."
Both teams know they're facing what is probably their best-matched opponent in the entire league. Both teams are big, fast, and deep, with tons of skill and talent. Any mistakes will be immediately capitalized upon by the other team. Assuming that both teams bring their "A" game faces to every single game, this is going to be a thriller of a series for the fans and players alike.
To be certain, whoever wins this series knows that the final-round faceoff against the EC winner will not, by any means, be a cake walk, either. You aren't a 7th or 8th-ranked team and make it to the 3rd round Conference playoff round by mere fluke or accident or even luck; you get there by your team working hard, working solid, and just flat-out wanting it more than the other guys. The Final round is going to be tough, just as tough as the 3rd round.
Like many other fans, I'll be tuning in to NBC on Sunday afternoon for game 1, eager to see my team do its thing - its beautiful, awesome thing - and start this series off right.
This may be one of, if not the wildest Stanley Cup seasons on record.
The league-wide 19th-ranked team (the Canadiens) not only knocked out the President's Trophy-winning top team (Capitals), but also took out last year's Stanley Cup winners (league-wide 8th-ranked Penguins) as well.
The Eastern conference teams were - compared to the Western - so bad as a whole that the final three teams to qualify for the playoffs (Bruins, Flyers, Canadiens) were not decided until the very final games of the regular season - and these were teams with only 91, 88, and 88 points overall respectively.
If the Flyers, Bruins and Canadiens had been directly ranked against both own conference and their Western counterparts to qualify for a playoff berth, they would not have even been in the playoffs. Yet currently they are the only survivors in the Eastern conference playoffs.
The Eastern conference playoff game will be between either the 6th (Bruins) or 7th (Flyers) ranked team, and the 8th-ranked (Canadiens) team.
Over in the Western conference, where 7 of the 8 final teams finished their season with 100+ points, the final conference series is down to the 1st (Sharks) and 2nd (Blackhawks) ranked teams.
Four of the five remaining goalies are European. Two of those remaining goalies are Finnish rookies.
For whoever wins this year's Cup, it will be the 11th different team in as many years to win the Cup.
Also for whoever wins this year's Cup, it will be to either break a drought, or awarded to a team which has never won it. Last year won for each team:
Blackhawks - 1961 (49 years, longest drought in the NHL) Bruins - 1970 (40 years) Flyers - 1975 (35 years) Sharks - never (est. 1991; 19 years) Canadiens - 1993 (17 years)
The Cup "droughts" for 3 of the 5 remaining teams are all longer than the San Jose Sharks have been in existence. The Sharks were established in 1991.
Only one of the three Norris Trophy (presented to the top defenseman) finalists, only Duncan Keith of the Blackhawks remains in the playoffs. Drew Doughty of the Kings and Mike Green of the Capitals were eliminated in round 1.
All three finalists for the Ted Lindsay Award (presented to the "Most Outstanding Player" in the NHL as selected by the PHWA), have been eliminated in the first two rounds (Ovechkin, Crosby, H. Sedin).
Those same three eliminated players (Ovechkin, Crosby, H. Sedin) are also the finalists for the PHWA's Hart Trophy (awarded "to the player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team").
All three finalists for the Jack Adams Award (presented to "the NHL coach adjudged to have contributed the most to his team's success" by the NHLBA) were eliminated in the first round (Joe Sacco - Avalanche; Dave Tippett - Coyotes; Barry Trotz - Predators).
Only one of the three finalists for the Masterson Memorial Trophy (awarded to "the National Hockey League player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey") remains in the playoffs: Jed Ortmeyer of the Sharks. (The other two finalists are Kurtis Foster of the Lightning and Jose Theodore of the Capitals).
All three finalists for the Calder Memorial Trophy (top rookie) have now been eliminated from the playoffs (Myers, Duchene, Howard).
The three finalists for the premiere NHL General Manager of the Year Award all saw their teams eliminated in the first round (Maloney - Phoenix; McPhee - Washington; Poile - Nashville).
All three finalists for the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy (presented to "the player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability") have been eliminated from the playoffs (Datsyuk, Richards, St. Louis).
All three finalists for the Selke Trophy (presented to "the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game") have been eliminated (Datsyuk, Kesler, J. Staal).
All three finalists for the Vezina (presented to "the goalkeeper adjudged to be the best at his position") were eliminated in the first round (Brodeur, Bryzgalov, Miller).
Martin Brodeur, who won the Jennings Trophy for the least goals allowed in the season, was eliminated in the first round.
Henrik Sedin, who earned the Art Ross Trophy for earning 112 points in the regular season, was eliminated in the second round.
On the anniversary of the Hawks eliminating the Canucks out of the second round of the playoffs, the Blackhawks came to Vancouver and did the same thing again, on the road.
Ok that was an AWESOME game - and I am so thrilled and happy and excited I can barely sit down. The Blackhawks take game six, 5-1 at GM Place, and advance to face the Sharks in the final round, which begins in the Shark Tank this weekend.
The first period was like a goalie clinic; the Hawks twice scored two goals within half a minute of each other. The Hawks played like we've wanted to see them play, and once again, hope and faith is renewed in the Men of Four Feathers.
HockeyBroad aims to show the level of knowledge, passion and support that female fans have for the sport of hockey. HB also analyzes all aspects of professional hockey: marketing, fan connectivity, game recaps, special events and more.
HB primarily follows the Chicago Blackhawks, as well as more general NHL and some AHL & ECHL coverage.You can also find my work as the Blackhawks writer on TheCheckingLine.com and Puckrant.com (Cheryl L. Adams).
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