One of those odd unwritten rules of pro hockey is that your entire life revolves around winning the Stanley Cup, but when you’re one game away from actually doing it, you have to pretend like you haven’t noticed. You have to claim it’s just another game, and maybe even feign some degree of surprise that anyone would treat it any other way.
So Monday, hours away from a chance at capturing their third Stanley Cup in six years, that’s what the Blackhawks did. After their morning skate, player after player swore that the night would be like any other game. They repeated it like a mantra, almost robotically. Just another game. No big deal. It’s only a championship on the line. For their part, the Lightning were just as coy, shrugging off any suggestions that having their very playoff lives on the line made this game any sort of big deal.
The charade lasted all morning, right up until Lightning coach Jon Cooper addressed the media. He was asked whether this was, indeed, just another game.
“No chance,” he replied, incredulous. “The Stanley Cup’s in the building. I can’t believe they would say, ‘Oh, it’s just another game.’”
“We know it’s just not another game,” he continued, gaining steam as he went. “This is much different than Game 1. You got to win or you go home. On the other side, you know what happens if they win.”
“No. I don’t like to sugarcoat anything. This is the reality of the business we’re in.”
He’s right, of course, even if he’s not supposed to say it. This wasn’t just another game. As it turns out, it would be the last game of the series and the season, and the one that saw a new dynasty crowned. And it would be the night the reality Cooper spoke of finally caught up with the Lightning.
More than 22,000 Blackhawks fans managed to make it through flood warnings and tornado sirens to reach the United Center, and they made their presence felt. Last night offered the first chance to see the Blackhawks win the Cup on their home ice since 1971,1 and many fans had paid thousands of dollars to be there. They were there to make themselves heard, and they rocked the building during the national anthem. You could even say they tore the roof off, except the weather had already done that, with some seats covered in plastic before the game because of rain.
Chicago lost to Montreal in Game 7, with 1938 the last time Chicago actually had clinched the Cup at home.
But once the game began, the fans settled into a kind of nervous quiet, cheering the big plays but mostly sitting back in a mixture of excitement and apprehension. The first goal had been huge all playoffs long, and both teams had spoken about the overwhelming importance of getting it. On this night, everyone would be in for a long wait.
It wasn’t for lack of opportunity, as the teams traded chances in a back-and-forth first period. Steven Stamkos, snakebitten all series long, hit the post. Teuvo Teravainen slid one just past an open net. Jonathan Toews had a great chance on a power play but was robbed by Ben Bishop. Late in the first, Jason Garrison seemed to have an open net to shoot at, but Marian Hossa got a piece of it to deflect it wide.
It was an odd feel to the opening period — a 0-0 game that felt like it could have been 3-3, and yet not really a goaltending duel. Bishop and Corey Crawford traded saves, but the teams also took turns just missing on golden chances. The Blackhawks dominated the shot count thanks to a pair of power plays, but the Lightning were holding on. It was hard not to think about what they’d done to the Rangers a round earlier, earning a pair of 2-0 wins at Madison Square Garden to take the series.
In the second, Tampa Bay slowly but surely started to take over. Stamkos had yet another great chance, a clean breakaway early in the period. He deked Crawford but couldn’t lift the puck and buried it into the goalie’s pad. But even that miss seemed to energize the Lightning, as if they realized the Hawks might just be there for the taking. Tampa Bay dominated the first half of the period, holding the Blackhawks without a shot until nearly midway through. It did everything but score.
And then, looking every bit like a team that has done this before, the Blackhawks took the game back. They set up camp on the Lightning end, buzzing around the net for shifts at a time. They didn’t convert, and in fact at one point spent a solid minute missing the net on every opportunity, but it brought the crowd back into the game.
Every hockey fan knows what happens next in a game like this: It’s either going to be an awful goal or an otherworldly one that only a superstar can make. Last night, we got the latter, and it was only fitting that it would be the biggest star of the series and of the postseason. Duncan Keith, the Blackhawks defenseman who never seems to leave the ice, took a nifty feed from Patrick Kane and snapped a shot from the slot. Bishop kicked it out but left a rebound sitting in no-man’s-land. Keith never broke stride, crashing the net and roofing one over Bishop, and the Blackhawks had a lead to take into the second intermission.
There’s been plenty of talk over the playoffs about the Lightning’s impressive resilience, and with their playoff lives on the line they pushed hard in the third. They fired 14 shots on Crawford, more than doubling their total from the first two periods combined. But as the period went on, they seemed to fade. It was hard to blame them; they were playing their 26th game of the postseason, tying an NHL record, and they simply looked gassed. As the minutes ticked away and the situation became desperate, the Lightning were left to stare down the fine line between selling out to score and avoiding the big mistake. Eventually, they couldn’t walk it.
A turnover in the Chicago zone led to a 3-on-2 rush the other way with five minutes left. Brandon Saad dropped it to Brad Richards, who closed in on Bishop as every Blackhawks fan screamed at him to shoot. Instead, he found Kane with a perfect pass, and Kane buried it because this is the playoffs and that’s just what he does. Amazingly, it was the first time in the entire series that either team had held a two-goal lead, and it was hard not to feel like it was game over.
The Lightning kept pressing, including a late power play that would be their only one of the game. Cooper pulled Bishop early for a two-man advantage, but the Lightning couldn’t convert against Crawford, who became just the third goaltender in the last 20 years to win the Cup with a shutout. The 2-0 score held up as the final, and Chicago fans’ wait to see the Cup presented in person was over.
Well, almost over. Remember that brutal weather we’d mentioned earlier? Somehow, the league managed to get the Stanley Cup stuck in traffic and needed a police escort that hit speeds of 100 mph just to get it there.
The delay offered a chance to reflect on what the Blackhawks have accomplished over the last six years. There’s been debate over what exactly constitutes a dynasty in the salary-cap era, but over the last few days a consensus seemed to emerge: If the Hawks could win no. 3, they’d have earned the title. So a dynasty it is.
When you look at the Blackhawks’ reign, it’s tempting to overthink things. How can one team win this much in the era of salary-cap-enforced parity? Is it their leadership? Their experience? Their winning culture? What magic formula have they figured out that has eluded the rest of the league?
Here’s an idea: They’re just really, really good. That’s stating the obvious, sure, but for some reason we like to overlook the talent factor and move on to the intangibles. Those help, of course, but they’re the garnish on the main course. In today’s NHL, talent wins. And the Blackhawks have more of it than anyone. That shone through last night, with Kane and Keith scoring the goals while Toews led the forwards in ice time and played his usual flawless two-way game. Those three now have three Cups each, joining other core Hawks like Brent Seabrook and Hossa in that club.2 It’s a star-studded lineup, which of course doesn’t guarantee anything. But this group is unique, and they seem to genuinely love playing together.
Chicago’s Niklas Hjalmarsson and Patrick Sharp also have three Cups; among active NHLers, Justin Williams is the only other player to have three.
“It’s been really special,” Keith said after the game. “Obviously, you play with the same guys for a long time and you develop a bond, and then when you can win a championship, it just reinforces that. To be able to do it three times, we’re all proud of it. We all talked about what it would be like, and like I said, we’re just super proud to be part of a group like this.”
Once the NHL’s trophy handlers finally arrived, Keith was awarded the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP (the vote was unanimous). That brought out Gary Bettman for his annual display of awkwardness, and he handed the Cup off to Toews. And Toews knew exactly who deserved the Cup next.
There’s one exception to the rule about pretending that it’s just another game, and it’s the old guy without a Cup. For the Blackhawks, that was veteran defenseman Kimmo Timonen, who had come over at the trade deadline without having played at all this season while recovering from life-threatening blood clots. He didn’t play much in Chicago, and at one point found himself a healthy scratch, but as the series wore on he’d reappeared to play spot duty on the blue line.
Timonen had never won a Cup, and after announcing that this would be his last season, he was almost out of chances. The closest he had come was in 2010 with the Flyers, which ended with him getting beat by Kane on the overtime winner. Now he was back as Kane’s teammate, taking one last shot at getting his name on the Cup.
On game day, the veteran defenseman held court with reporters in the Blackhawks’ locker room, talking about everything from how he’d been sleeping (“Not too bad”)3 to whatever happened to that puck from the 2010 final (“It might still be in the back of the net”) to his unenviable track record of losing the big one (“I’ve been in every final there is in the hockey world but I haven’t won anything”).
A lie, as it turns out. “I pretty much lied to everybody this morning that I slept good,” he said after the game. “I didn’t sleep at all.”
He wasn’t exaggerating on that last one; Timonen had been to a Stanley Cup final, an Olympic gold-medal game, a World Cup final, and a world championship gold-medal game, and lost them all. At 40 years old, this was his last chance to win something.
And while he spent yesterday morning’s session trying to keep the mood light, it was hard not to detect a tinge of sadness in the moment. One reporter mentioned that Teravainen had joked that he was the one keeping Timonen calm, and the veteran laughed and agreed that might be true. “He hasn’t been around that much and he’s going to be around the next 15 years for sure,” he said, before adding the obvious: “But I won’t be around.”
On the ice after the game, it was a much happier but no less philosophical Timonen who tried to find the words to describe a moment he’d spent a lifetime chasing.
“It feels empty,” he said. “It’s been a long journey. There’s been good moments, bad moments, tough moments, ups and downs. Everybody knows what happened this summer. It was a tough battle.”
“But I was dreaming about this moment for a long time, and it’s right here,” he continued. “This game has given me so much, and I’m relieved, happy, ready to leave this game, and I’m leaving this game as a Stanley Cup champion.”
It wasn’t just another game. It never was. But then, we knew that all along.