Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The second season: a phoenix rises in Chicago

Chicago Blackhawks vs Vancouver Canucks
Rogers Arena, November 20, 2010

Sunday afternoon at the United Center was a crushing ending to a roller-coaster season. 

The Chicago Blackhawks entered the morning's game vs. longtime rival the Detroit Red Wings with a 4-1 series edge, and coming off an extremely strong win at the Joe on Friday night. After leaving points on the table all season long, it was extraordinary that the defending Stanley Cup champions would come down to this : just one point away from not even getting into the post season to defend their title.

Missing the playoffs would seem ridiculous. It would have been a double-whammy for the record books, in fact: Chicago would have joined a handful of other teams to not have returned to the playoffs after a Cup win; and, at 97 points, would have been the highest point total in NHL history for a team to have earned and still missed the playoffs.

Four hundred miles away in Minnesota, another team waited the results more eagerly than anyone in the league: the Dallas Stars. With a Chicago loss in regulation, the Stars could still make it into the playoffs due to tiebreakers, if they could win against the Wild that night. Under last year's tiebreaker rules, the Blackhawks would have already had their berth secure; under this season's, it came down to the final games, on the final day of the season.

The United Center was packed, as it always is for this Original Six rivalry. The fans rocked the barn, with traditional chants of "Detroit sucks!" eventually giving way in the second period to "Let's go, Hawks!" 

Back and forth, the teams battled it out on the ice, scoreless until early in the second period, when Michael Frolik put the Blackhawks on the board. Detroit tied it up. Then Detroit pulled ahead, totaling three unanswered goals. Chicago scored again. Detroit made it 2-4. Chicago scored again, but they couldn't make a tying goal in the final nine minutes to at least push the game into overtime and get the badly needed point to stay ahead of Dallas.

It was anticipated that Dallas would win against the Wild that night, so for players and fans alike, it was believed that was the end of the season. From top of the mountain to not getting back in the door to the show just ten months later. 

But, as it turns out, Minnesota had other ideas.

The Wild had a rough end to their season, falling out from potential playoff contenders to 12th in the West. Everybody in the league expected Dallas to steamroll the Wild as they moved in for the kill to clinch the 8th spot over Chicago.

But the Wild has a long history with Dallas: specifically, the Dallas Stars used to be the Minnesota North Stars, before being moved to Texas in 1993. Although the NHL kept their promise that Minnesota would get a franchise again, there was a little payback waiting to be had.

Not to mention that one should never underestimate that teams who are already out of the playoff picture traditionally like to try to take out other teams on the way out the door. St. Louis had attempted to derail Chicago just a few days earlier in Chicago. 

Still, everybody was already writing off the Wild. As it turns out, the Stars must've thought it would've been an easier battle as well, because they were caught flat, and the Wild got on the board first. Although the teams' scoring went back and forth, Minnesota and Dallas started the third tied at 3. Seven minutes into the period, Antti Miettinen scored what would eventually become the game-winning goal. The Wild's defense locked down; Jose Theodore slammed the door; and across the continent, hockey fans watched in disbelief as the Wild won, 5-3.

Minnesota got a bit snarky with their website as well, proudly acknowledging what they'd achieved by announcing "By the way Chicago... you're welcome" on their front page.

Over on Facebook, the Wild's official page was flooded with messages of thanks from a grateful fan base. For the past two days in Chicago, there's been more sightings of Wild T-shirts, jerseys and hats in the city than you would have ever guessed existed here. 

The Coyotes will not be the only phoenix in the playoffs this season. 

Rising from the still-warm ashes of their season, both the Blackhawks players and coaching staff alike expressed relief, excitement, giddiness. The team was granted new life, and a chance to defend what is still theirs: the Stanley Cup. 

It is often discussed in Chicago hockey circles that "the road to the Stanley Cup goes through Detroit." Ascending to the playoffs annually over the past twenty years, Detroit has been a perennial favorite in betting circles, holding multiple Cups. 

As it turns out, now somebody else's road to the Cup goes through Chicago: Vancouver. 

If Chicago had gotten even a single point out of their final game, they would not have faced off against the Canucks; they would have started the playoffs against a team such as San Jose or Anaheim. But it was not fated to be. For the past two years, Chicago has taken out Vancouver in the second round of the playoffs.

But this year, the teams have reversed their fortunes a bit. Vancouver figured out what worked in Chicago's favor for the past two years, and applied that to their team. Roberto Luongo made the best decision to step down from the Captaincy of the team and focus instead on his goaltending. What little turnover the Canucks had was carefully recruited to fill holes. And despite a season riddled with injuries and a lineup studded with call-ups, the team bought into a system and made it work for them, all the way to the top of the league standings, picking up the President's Trophy, the William Jennings, and another Art Ross along the way. 

Vancouver stands where Chicago did a year ago: weighted down by the expectations of a city that has waited 40 years for a championship, with a team buoyed by such a good year that they bear the label "team of destiny". Everything about this team suggests that there is more than enough hope and reason to believe that yes, the Canucks can finally do it all this year. The pressure is heavy, and Canada's best hopes hang on Vancouver, not Montréal, to bring the Cup back across the border this season.

It takes little imagination to believe that Vancouver must have sighed a collective breath of relief when Chicago lost on Sunday morning, and the Canucks wouldn't have to face their dreaded rival at all ... and an equally sharp breath later in the evening, when Chicago clinched the 8th spot and became their first round opponent.

But it is only fitting that Vancouver should have to face Chicago. The Blackhawks have been their nemesis for too long.

As for Chicago, they have nothing to lose at this point. As of 2 p.m. CDT on Sunday afternoon, they thought they had already lost it all. All the team turnover, all the pain, all the struggles, all the injuries, all the inconsistencies, all the points left in games had taken their toll. 

In a split second, hope disappeared and the season was believed to be over.

As the Blackhawks stood, stunned and dejected after the final horn of their game, the target that had been on their back all season fell away, to be placed instead on the back of the Vancouver Canucks, owners of the best record in the NHL this season.

But later that night, the Wild gave Chicago a gift nay, practically their blessings. 

And in that moment, last year's champions became the underdogs, and the Canucks became the ones to beat.

New life, new energy for Chicago. No longer any of the baggage the team had carried for eight months. A page turned; a new chapter to be written.

The Blackhawks enter the second season a new team. Gone are the 82 games of the regular season. The slate is wiped clean. You want to talk statistics? Those are gone, too, good for nothing but discussing the possibilities. Nothing matters now except the seven-game stretch ahead: who can win four of them first; who can outbattle the other and know the triumph of going on to the next round.

In 24 hours, it all begins.

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