Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A remarkable ending to a silver season: the 2010-11 Blackhawks season eulogy

The Silver Season might not have played out like desired. The cards were stacked against the team from the start. Yet they still made it to the playoffs, went out swinging, and at the end of the day, they remain the 2010 Stanley Cup champions.
 * * *

For the final four games of the first round of the playoffs, the men of four feathers gave their fans and their city great, glorious, shining hope.

The team had started their series against Vancouver the same way they played their season: inconsistently. The Canucks outplayed them, but despite struggling, the Blackhawks hung in there. The first game was an 0-2 loss; then a 1-goal loss.

Then game 3 happened: a 2-3 loss, but the Torres hit sparked the team. The Blackhawks realized they were letting themselves being pushed around. As Captain Jonathan Toews put it, giving another team too much credit. Letting them take liberties.

In games 4 and 5 - a vastly different and motivated team took the ice, and owned it, both in Chicago and Vancouver. The game 4 romp, a 7-2 blowout, was followed by a 5-0 shutout. To ice the cake, Chicago took a 4-3 overtime win home at the United Center before a frenzied fanbase, creating NHL history in the process. Yes, Vancouver might have played better hockey that night.

But this is hockey. You don't get points for form, or style, or any of that. You get points because you put the puck in the back of the net.

And so it was back to Vancouver for game 7. The Canucks got on the board first, early, and held the visitors off the scoresheet. The Blackhawks looked drained and were not playing their best, but they also held the Canucks further off the scoresheet -- primarily thanks to the mindblowing effort of their rookie goaltender, Corey Crawford. It was a tight nail-biter of a game that ran into overtime thanks to a highlight-reel tying goal poked in underneath Roberto Luongo by Jonathan Toews, who was sprawled on the ice in the dying moments of the third period.
 
 

After the game, Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo spoke respectfully of Toews' skill, stating: “The play he made on the tying goal, not a lot of guys in the league can do that. That's why he won the Conn Smythe, the MVP of the Olympics. It was a massive play by him short-handed, and that's why he's the leader of that team.”

But in the moments after the goal, you could just about hear the noise sucked out of Rogers Arena like a giant vacuum had switched on. As discussed yesterday, so much hung in the balance of this game for Vancouver. Reading blogs and Twitter and yes, even mainstream media posts pre-game, you would think that if the Canucks had lost, the people sitting in Rogers Arena last night would've crossed the street en masse and drowned themselves in False Creek.

There can be zero doubt that the Canucks fans' mindset at that moment was, "Oh, sh--"

The Blackhawks were riding off a 3-game winning streak that had brought them roaring back from an 0-3 deficit and near-sweep from the first round. They had not brought the necessary energy to the first three games, and they had paid the price. Motivated after the third loss, they turned around their fortunes in games 4, 5, and 6 - just the 8th time in NHL history a team down 0-3 in a series had come back to force a game 7.

If they could do that, then why not believe? Why not believe this team could, at the very least, win this series?

And despite the less-than-stellar play of the rest of the team, Jonathan Toews and Corey Crawford nearly pulled out the win between the two of them.

Both teams came out gunning in overtime, although the Canucks were playing with a new edge to their desperation. Just over five minutes into overtime, Chris Campoli went to clear the puck from the Blackhawks end of the zone. Canuck Alex Burrows managed to swat it down, got a step ahead of Campoli, and with a flick, sent it flying towards Corey Crawford. The goalie's arm shot up, and he caught the edge of the puck, but it wasn't enough to deflect it away. Game over. Season over.

In a spectacular moment of poor sportsmanship, Vancouver captain Henrik Sedin was dismissive and disrespectful of Chicago's historical efforts, stating afterwards, “They had no business being in the series. We outplayed them badly for five games.” His brother and teammate, Daniel, stated a similar opinion, saying, "I don't think they had any business being in a seventh game."

This pair of statements came from a pair who were the highest-scoring combo in the regular season, and yet who were a combined -13 in the last 4 games of the series. The same guys who got outscored by the rookie goaltender on the other team in games 4 and 5. The guy who was on the doorstep for a final nail in the coffin in the final minutes of the game in regulation, and passed the puck to another player at a bad angle, because he apparently didn't trust himself to hit the net.


Perhaps you're right, Henrik. Perhaps the Blackhawks didn't deserve to be in this series. If the Blackhawks had played up to their potential all season long - if they hadn't been plagued by injury after injury all season long - if they hadn't been so frustratingly inconsistent for 82 games - you're right. They wouldn't have been in this series. They should have had home ice, been facing another opponent, and maybe they even would've been the ones hoisting the Presidents' Trophy.

But that's not how the season played out. The Blackhawks didn't do their best, and yet they still got 97 points. No matter what conference you get that many points in, it gets you a ride to the playoffs. In the end, it doesn't matter that it was Dallas' loss that salvaged the Blackhawks season; the Hawks still won enough to make it.

There's an old saying in sports: a champion finds ways to win, even when all odds say they shouldn't. 

And perhaps you're right, Daniel; maybe the Blackhawks shouldn't have managed to stretch this series to seven. But they did, because the Canucks couldn't finish it out any earlier, although they had three chances to do so. The Canucks have nobody except themselves to blame for being in that position (*insert choking noises here*) and they should not have belittled the Blackhawks efforts in taking them there. The Canucks were in the position of having their foot on the enemy's neck, and they couldn't seal the deal in game 4.

Or game 5.

Or game 6.

And to be completely frank, the rookie goalie who was originally supposed to just be the backup guy this season in Chicago outplayed the $10 million goalie manning the net in Vancouver, including being flat-out spectacular in the final game. Crawford finished the series with a .927 sv% and just 2.21 GAA. Luongo finished with a .917 sv% and 2.97 GAA (not to mention getting chased not just once but twice); Cory Schneider had .878 sv% and 3.09 GAA. It just goes to show you that the better players don't always win it all.

Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville gave emphatic, immediate feedback about his goalie after the loss, stating that Crawford's game was "one of the greatest goaltending performances in a clutch situation you're ever going to see."  

How impactful was the Blackhawks' performance, especially from its rookie goaltender? Corey Crawford and Chris Campoli trended worldwide on Twitter immediately after the game. (Anything Canucks-related was only trending in Vancouver and Canada; and briefly in Chicago.) Nearly 24 hours later, Corey Crawford was still a top-10 trending topic on Twitter in Chicago; and was still trending in Vancouver.

The Blackhawks outscored Vancouver 22-16 over the course of the series. Each team shut out the other once. Three of the games Vancouver won were by 1-goal margins (game 1 was a 2-0 win). Stats cannot tell the whole story of this series: the tension, the drama. Hollywood could not have scripted this any better - third time was finally the charm for the Canucks to get past the Blackhawks.

Stick taps to Ryan Kesler, who was gracious in the win, stating, "They were the Stanley Cup champions. It took a lot for us to defeat them. They have a lot of character on that team. We were up 3-0 against an 8th-seed, but that wasn't an 8th-seed team we were playing. They were injured for most of the year."

Not only were the Blackhawks injured most of the year, but they carried injuries into the post-season and picked a few new ones up in the past two weeks. It will be interesting to see the complete laundry list (or as complete as the team is willing to admit) after the team goes through final meetings and media discussions and locker cleanout day on Thursday. Was Sharp's knee fully healed? Was Bolland fully ready to come back? Who else was nursing injuries and playing over them in the tradition of hockey fortitude?




My eulogy for this season is going to be short, because it all can be summed up in a single word which has already been used ad nauseum this year: inconsistent. 

This season started with a heart-moving ceremony that 29 other teams in the league wish they could have started with: a Stanley Cup banner-raising ceremony. Fans and players alike who witnessed it will never forget it.

The season was stacked against them from the start: more games packed into the first two months than any other team, including three consecutive weeks with back-to-back home/away games. Between the team's roster turnover, the shortened summer, one of their top D men being taken out with an injury in pre-season games, and the brutal opening month, there were a lot of things that hurt the team early in the season.

Yet, to their credit, the team wasn't out there complaining about any of that. It was mentioned briefly, but they sucked it up and soldiered on as best they could, under the circumstances.

Then as the season rolled on, the team found out the reality of the "Stanley Cup hangover". They will all walk away from this year as a learning experience. Those who won the Cup will train differently in the future. Many of those who were new to the roster this year got their first real taste of the playoffs, and they'll be hungry to make it again next year.

After all this team suffered this season - trades, injuries, the tough schedule; everything working against them to make it challenging to build team chemistry again - it seemed stacked from the beginning that the team wouldn't make it to the playoffs. But the fans wanted to believe. Jonathan Toews wouldn't stop believing, either; calling the concept "ridiculous". So for the Sedins to dismiss the Blackhawks efforts as having "no business" being in the first round or in a Game 7 was not only condescending and unsportsmanlike, but a slight against all the Blackhawks achieved despite adversity. Perhaps they were still smarting about Toews being correct about the Canucks being "exposed" as a "beatable" team.

While it is always disappointing to see your team lose in the first round, it is difficult to complain too much about how the Blackhawks went out. On April 10th, everybody though their season was done. New life was breathed in. The angst of the first three games of the playoffs has already faded, replaced by the glory and the joy and the hope that went along with games 4 through 7.

For this year, I have been at most of the home games; and I've gone to road games in Minneapolis, Nashville, Vancouver, and St. Louis. I got to witness some great hockey, some good hockey, and some bad hockey. But the game that will define this year for me is game 6 in this series. The Blackhawks weren't necessarily the better team on the ice, but they found it within them to win. Crawford was spectacular (as he would also be in game 7). And it was witnessing another truly historical moment for the team. 

The majority of this team should and will be back. The big guns, the core D, they're already sewn up - Hossa, Kane, Toews, Seabrook, Keith, etc. There's guys who were new to the team who made a difference this year and who fit in perfectly, who we should hope to see re-signed: Johnson, Campoli, Frolik.

And then there's the guys who are RFAs or UFAs, and the question of who will stay, and who will go. Troy Brouwer was a hit machine, but was as inconsistent as the rest of the team about other things he needed to be doing (e.g., getting to the net; scoring). Tomas Kopecky, who had a career year in points, but is also a bit infamous for his skills, as well. Did guys like Viktor Stalberg, brought to the team via trade, earn another roster spot for next year?

Rookies like Ben Smith and Nick Leddy have earned their spot for next year. Marcus Kruger will probably be in Chicago instead of Rockford. And speaking of Rockford, there are certainly players there who might earn their position on the club as well; I wouldn't expect to see Kevin Hayes spending too much time with the IceHogs, for example.

This season ended in disappointment; but the fans were already braced for it. Next season, the team will be better prepared. Perhaps more importantly, they will have had the summer to heal and to rest. The players who won the Cup last year should take the time to have a vacation far, far away from hockey - go someplace exotic and interesting, and do something that completely removes them from what this year has been. Take a trek across Nepal, take a tour of Tibet, go sailing around the Galapagos; just go empty the brain out, hit the reset button on the psyche, refill the batteries, and then come back ready to deal with the new season.

As much as it's appreciated seeing Troy Brouwer and Duncan Keith admit they've all  made it hard on themselves as a team, the same thing can't happen again next year. All the building blocks are in place; with a tweak here and there, and the addition of the right player or two, and next year will be another season to be proud of, with a deeper playoff run than this year.


In the meantime, good luck on your Cup run, Vancouver. You have been a remarkable team this year, and yes, the team that was better in the playoffs did eventually win it: in seven games, in overtime, in the grandest of storybook fashions. And perhaps, with that win, you will have finally buried your demons about this team...

... and perhaps not. For Vancouver has immortalized the Chicago-Vancouver rivalry outside their stadium with a statue of a man holding aloft a towel on a hockey stick, a sign of mock surrender, an indelible memory of a pivotal moment in the Blackhawks-Canucks rivalry that seems to define it to this day. 

Chicago's 2010-2011 season, and year with the Stanley Cup, ended last night in Vancouver. The Blackhawks went out bloody, but unbowed.

We look forward to seeing you again in October.







2 comments:

  1. D here. You obviously know how I feel already based on my twitter rant, but to reiterate here: how utterly classLESS of the Sedins. Maybe they should retake basic math. One wonders how if the Canucks outplayed us for five games and we didn't "belong" in the series, it took them SEVEN games PLUS two OTs to get past us? *tries counting on fingers* Yeah, go back to school. I'd save my partying, Vancouver, until I actually had my hands on the Cup.

    All hail Corey Crawford. He was truly outstanding. And while he struggled this series, I am so glad Toews is our captain. He is the epitome of a hard-working leader who knows how to carry himself. He holds himself accountable for his actions. The Sedin idiots could certainly learn from his example.

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  2. Listen up. The only real way to save the Coyotes at this point is with this:

    "The Green Bay Packers Board of Directors is the organization that serves as the owner of record for the Green Bay Packers football club. The Packers have been a publicly owned, non-profit corporation since August 18, 1923."

    That's right, a board of directors type of ownership where anybody, anywhere who wants the Coyotes to stay in Glendale can purchase a stake into the team. Best of all, the taxpayers of Glendale (especially the ones who don't support the team) don't have to fork over a single penny if they don't want to. Remember, if the taxpayers are not paying for it, then Goldwater backs off.

    I know that the NHL board of governors are not crazy about a Green Bay Packers type of ownership, but if they (and the Glendale city council) really want the Coyotes to stay, then they have no choice but to make an exception to the Coyotes and allow them to have a board of directors type of ownership.

    So for those of you who want the Coyotes to stay, spread the word. Get this message posted to as many places as possible while there's still time and if you can get this message to Gary Bettman and the B.O.G., that's even better. With everybody's help, the Coyotes will be saved! So spread the word right now or watch the Coyotes relocate to Winnipeg or Kansas City instead.

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