Sports do not work the way they used to: Money has skyrocketed far past the rate of inflation; free agency is easy and universal; the talent level has increased and evened out more throughout the world; and frankly there are not many executives anymore with the vision to stay ahead of the rest. In the NHL, the Chicago Blackhawks have done just that.
It all started in 2006 with the drafting of Jonathan Toews, third overall. In 2007, they had the first overall pick and took Patrick Kane. In 2008, they lured Coach Joel Quenneville away from Colorado. Before that, hockey was an afterthought in Chicago; ‘The Madhouse on Madison’ was nothing of the sort, often half full at most; and there was even talk of the team moving. An ‘Original Six’ franchise moving—it could have happened.
Now the Chicago Blackhawks are the model franchise in hockey, the one every other organization strives to emulate, the one all the rest are chasing and have to beat. For the third time in six seasons, no one did. The Blackhawks defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning four games to two to win the sixth Stanley Cup in their history, and first on home ice since 1938. Though it was a tight series, there was never really a thought they would not win. It was the second final to have five consecutive one-goal games to open it, and the clincher was a one-goal game until late.
This series was expected to feature speed and offense, it ended up featuring stout defense and some unexpected brilliance in goal, especially from the Blackhawks. The championships in 2010 and 2013 were widely seen as being won in spite of the goaltending: 2010 with Antti Niemi, and 2013 with Corey Crawford. They even let Niemi go after that Cup win. Crawford was benched in the first round against the Predators, with Chicago native Scott Darling saving the day and bedeviling Nashville. But Crawford earned his way back in net and played his best when it counted most.
Tampa was the highest scoring team in the league, but Chicago stopped them cold. The Lightning managed only 10 goals in the series, seven in their two wins, and only three in the four defeats. Crawford let in some trademark soft goals at times in the losses, but stood tall in the three games Chicago won to close out the series allowing a total of two goals. Chicago only scored 13 in the series, an average of less than four goals per game combined, not quite what we expected.
Offense has always been more glamorous, but defense does still rule the day in the tight moments, and this series had nothing but tight moments. In ‘game one,’ Tampa held a 1-0 lead until Chicago struck for a pair in the third 1:58 apart to win 2-1. ‘Game two’ was the highest scoring game of the series, Tampa winning 4-3 on a goal with 11:11 remaining. ‘Game three’ saw two third period goals steal it for Tampa 3-2, the winner with 3:11 left. Then the Blackhawks clamped down.
‘Game four’ was won on a Brandon Saad goal at 6:22 of the third, 2-1. ‘Game five’ was won on an Antoine Vermette goal at 2:00 of the third, also 2-1. ‘Game six’ was the only game not decided by one goal, Chicago winning 2-0. Crawford stopped 80 of 82 shots in those final three games. Salary Cap issues are looming, but this franchise has a history of making the right moves.