CHICAGO -- It’s hard to imagine where the Chicago Blackhawks were and where they are now.
The Stanley Cup Finals. Let it sink in.
There was little doubt as the conference finals began, the Blackhawks had a matchup edge against the San Jose Sharks. They were quicker and faster than the Sharks during the regular season and there was no reason to believe that would change. And it didn’t.
But a sweep?
That’s not the Blackhawks way, at least not recently. A bad effort here or there prolonged previous rounds, but there was no letting down against the Sharks. Even in winning a game or two almost solely because of Antti Niemi’s stellar play, the Hawks still brought it every night. On the days they squeaked by, they made their own fortune.
It’s as if we’ve seen this team mature in front of our eyes. It goes back to some of the conclusions attained after the win over the Vancouver Canucks: the leadership on the Hawks is top rate.
Discipline, teamwork, and sacrifice are words that come to mind. After Game 3, Jonathan Toews said it’s possible they got by on their talent during the regular season. But once the playoffs began, players started taking on specific roles and thriving in them.
No one epitomizes that notion more than Dave Bolland. A season nearly lost to a back injury has turned for him, and it all began with his defensive prowess. Always thought of as one of the smarter players on the ice, his offensive instincts emerged against the Sharks.
An eighth-round pick, Dustin Byfuglien is the talk of the league. By the end of the season he was embracing his return to defense, but in the Vancouver series, Joel Quenneville asked him to return to his role of a year ago: slot and crease agitator.
He did more than agitate. He scored an unheard of three game-winning goals in the sweep, and these weren’t first-period tallies that held up. We’re talking about clutch, late, nail-biting scores. And remember, Byfuglien didn’t exactly warm to the job of man in the middle early in the season, but again, a role was asked of him, and he delivered.
At times like these, talking to players about some of the dark days surrounding the franchise gives better perspective on the current success.
“It’s unbelievable, looking back at the way things started in Chicago five years ago to where we are now. I don’t think anyone could have predicted that,” Patrick Sharp said. “It’s a lot of hard work. There are a lot of reasons why we are there.”
Brent Seabrook is another holdover from the previous regime.
“I knew back then we had a good group of some young guys and we would get our chance,” he said. “Maybe not this quick.”
In some way it does feel like it happened overnight but everyone knows that’s not true. Drafting and developing doesn’t happen overnight. Dale Tallon and his staff made some brilliant trades and signed a little known goaltender that the Hawks could never know would make such an impact, so quick.
His performance in Games 1 and 3 were nothing short of fantastic. If not for a player named Toews, Niemi might just be your Conn Smythe winner for best in the playoffs. With one more round to go, he might still win it.
The great thing about the series is the Sharks never laid down. They forced the Hawks to earn it. The scorebook will say sweep, but a closer look will remind you three games were tied in the third period and one went to overtime. That’s the way it should be.
And then there is Toews and Kane. Kane and Toews. Linked in so many ways, there is yet another. They’re one and two in playoff scoring. That’s also the way it should be.
Speaking of Toews, is there any other player in the league that has made a bigger statement about himself, this year, than the Hawks captain. He is four wins away from the end of an incredible year. Winning a gold medal and being voted best forward at the Olympics was just the beginning. He signed a mega contract and then surpassed the great Stan Mikita for most consecutive games with a playoff point. He’s at 13 and counting. The NHL record is 18. Would you bet against him doing it?
If it ended today the Conn Smythe would be his as well. And he’s only 22 years old.
The Hawks have surpassed their stated goals at the beginning of the season: To win the division and subsequently the West. Now, they enter sacred territory. At some point in the next two weeks they will see Lord Stanley -- either handed to them or their opponent -- and a 49-year itch might just get scratched.
If all it takes is heart, desire, hunger and talent, give them the Cup now. They have an abundance of all four.