Blackhawks on brink of being dubbed a dynasty

CHICAGO -- On a cold, rainy, windswept Saturday night, the corner bar was jammed with replica Patrick Kanes brushing up against replica Corey Crawfords, and young Chicagoans danced and sang, rejoicing about what they had just witnessed.

With an easier-than-expected 5-3 win over the Anaheim Ducks in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals, the Blackhawks advanced to play the Tampa Bay Lightning, with the series starting Wednesday in Florida.

For the third time in six years, the Chicago Blackhawks are headed to the Stanley Cup finals, and everyone is ready to celebrate.

Forgive me, old-timers with Stan Mikita haircuts, but there has never been a better time to be a hockey fan in Chicago.

Unlike, well, most of Chicago's teams, the Blackhawks are fun to watch when the regular season ends. And unlike the regular season, which drags like Kimmo Timonen on a breakaway, when the postseason comes around even hockey apostates can be dazzled watching Patrick Kane with the puck.

Are there any Blackhawks dissenters left in Chicago? Yes, of course. Hockey is still soccer on skates to some fans. But the Blackhawks are gaining new followers every season.

In terms of the civic pecking order, the Bears are still No. 1 because Chicagoans are masochists. The young, powerful Cubs are back to being a draw, while the Bulls are dealing with organizational ennui as they embark on a nationwide search for their next coach. (Hint: He was in Ames, Iowa, all along.) The White Sox, who too often play like they're wearing skates and hockey mitts, are in the midst of another fan-killing season.

But the Blackhawks? You can pretty much count on them, salary-cap fears or no.

Where does this core of players stand? They'll never have the panache or singular memories of the one-year wonders, the 1985 Chicago Bears, and they'll likely never match Michael Jordan's Bulls' championship hardware or the internationally known dominance of that era.

But it's starting to look like these Blackhawks will slot in right where they belong.

We live in a time when we are constantly ranking and judging athletes and teams, pitting them in imaginary contests against their peers, both past and present.

It's all meaningless fodder, but that is the essence of sports conversation: justifying what we're experiencing.

Is this a so-called dynasty? Why should anyone care if it is or isn't? My colleague Scott Burnside wrote a little about this after the Blackhawks' win.

Bragging rights, I guess, are one reason to argue dynasty. Another is a healthy respect for history.

Although everyone wants to see new teams and fresh storylines, there is something comforting about witnessing a top dog. Familiarity, especially in a sport that doesn't have a big-time college footprint to build name recognition, is a very good thing.

It was a wonderful turn of fate that the Blackhawks' stars carried them to this Cup appearance. Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews banged home the first two goals in Game 7, Duncan Keith continued his monster playoffs, and Kane, who has 10 goals in the postseason, had three assists.

For a sport defined by luck and opportunity, to have the biggest names turn up again and again is not only rewarding to die-hard fans, but it also helps build new ones.

Casual sports fans all over North America are familiar with Toews, Kane and Keith because they're on TV every late spring. The Blackhawks are likable to out-of-town fans, like the San Francisco Giants and unlike, say, the New England Patriots.

The Blackhawks obviously need to win this next series to cement dynastic status, but there is little argument to be made that this team, anchored by its young stars, is just a local obsession. It is an NHL marvel with few rivals.

The Los Angeles Kings are one such rival, with two Cups in the past three seasons. The Kings knocked Chicago out in Game 7 of last year's conference finals. A third Cup would clearly signify the Hawks' status in the post-2005 landscape.

Judging from their comments, it's safe to say the Blackhawks aren't satisfied with selling "conference champion" hats. Then again, who would be?

Kane, Toews and the rest know what it's like to hold the Cup, and they know what it's like to miss out.

"We've had some good accomplishments in here and some things to be proud of," Kane said. "But at the same time, who knows if these opportunities are going to come around this often?"

As the next series gets ready to begin, the Blackhawks shouldn't be worried about hockey immortality or bragging rights. It's all about living in the now.

Because if you're a Blackhawk or a Blackhawks fan, the present is a pretty good place to be.