As the clock struck midnight and rolled into Sunday, signifying the three-year anniversary of the Chicago Blackhawks 2010 Stanley Cup championship, three current players were busy speaking to the media about returning to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since winning it all that night in Philadelphia.
After beating the Los Angeles Kings 4-3 in the second overtime to become champions of the Western Conference, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith addressed reporters as two-time Stanley Cup finalists looking for their second ring.
“We're excited to get back there,” Keith said. “I think you don't get back there very often. I just saw on the ticker that [Jaromir] Jagr hadn't been back in 21 years. These opportunities don't come back all the time.
“I think we want to make the best of it.”
And although the Hawks were wire-to-wire leaders in the standings this season, a trip back to the Stanley Cup finals was no guarantee at this time last year.
The organization was seemingly a mess. The Hawks had endured their second consecutive first-round exit and were searching for answers. They fired an assistant coach and there was talk among fans that a big name had to be traded to “shake things up.” A change in goal was a fait accompli in many minds.
But Hawks general manager Stan Bowman stayed the course, while coach Joel Quenneville doubled down, hiring friend Jamie Kompon as an assistant and vowing to hold all more accountable.
“We definitely went through some tough times and some trials,” Toews explained. “That's all part of it. Not everything is going to go your way whenever you want it to. Like Duncs said, this opportunity doesn't come too often.
“I think we all realize that this time around. We're ready to take advantage of it.”
Maybe no single player signifies those ups and downs more than Kane. When he slumped in the 2012 postseason, then was pictured partying not long after the team was eliminated, many questioned his commitment.
He was quiet in the series against the Kings -- until some internal and external pressure woke him up. A hat trick on Saturday, including the winning goal, came three years after similar dramatics in Philadelphia. Kane knows how to steal the spotlight.
“Right now it feels like the best,” he said. “I think [on this day] a few years ago was also a good night. But right now I think it's almost like I'm in a different zone, like in the ‘Twilight Zone’ or something.
“I'm kind of out of it. It's definitely a good feeling, though.”
There are similarities to be drawn between the 2010 team and this one. Dustin Byfuglien emerged as a force in that postseason, while Bryan Bickell has done the same here. The Hawks got contributions that year from third-liners and penalty killers like Dave Bolland and Kris Versteeg, while Andrew Shaw and Michael Frolik have picked up where those guys left off. Questions about unproven goaltending were pervasive that year, just like entering this one.
So with that backdrop, the Hawks fought off the disappointments of the previous two postseasons and dove head-first into the adversity of this one. And when it hit this time, the Hawks were more prepared.
“I don't think you get a chance to play for the Stanley Cup without going through moments like we have,” Toews said. “You got to persevere. Even though this is just a five-game series, we felt like there were some tough moments, too. Every time we dealt with it head-on.
“I think the feeling and the confidence that we got from coming back from that 3-1 deficit against Detroit, I think that gives you a lot of confidence.”
Maybe the difference between this season and the previous two is that the Hawks’ core persevered even when things looked dire. That hasn’t been the case since Chicago won the Cup three years ago Sunday. But all that’s changed.
“Here we are again,” Toews said. “We got a great chance to go back to where we want to be. We know there's going to be some more tough moments that we'll have to battle through. We're confident we can do that as a team.”
This time, this year, it’s believable.