(Photo: NHL Youtube)
When Patrick Kane skirted Kimmo Timonen and beat Michael Leighton for the overtime Cup-winner in Philadelphia in 2010, the Chicago Blackhawks broke a 49-year championship drought.
With their 2-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning Monday night, the Hawks won the Cup on home ice for the first time in 77 years, bringing it to the United Center for the first time and giving Timonen a chance to raise the trophy at the close of his lengthy career.
As flash floods and tornado warnings hammered the Chicago area, the Blackhawks clinched the Stanley Cup for the third time in six years–an incredible feat in the salary cap era–but keeper of the Cup Philip Pritchard was stalled by the storm. He received a police escort to the United Center to present the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy just a little late.
Monday night was a game of numbers for Chicago. The team was the first to win three Cups since the league expanded to 30 teams in 2000. Seven Blackhawks players–Kane, Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook, Patrick Sharp, and Captain Jonathan Toews–join only one other active player, Justin Williams (Hurricanes, 2006, and Los Angeles Kings 2012 and 2014) to have their names on the Cup three times.
And, Timonen, a 16-year veteran and Olympic medalist for Finland, was handed the Cup after playing in just 16 postseason games and 18 regular season games, tallying no points, after being told he’d likely never play again with a diagnosis of blood clots.
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The 40-year-old felt it on the bench when Kane gave the Blackhawks a two-goal lead late in the third period. “I was crying a little bit. There were tears coming out of my eyes because I knew that it was going to be–two goals against this team, it was going to be hard to score,” Timonen said. “I knew we had a really good chance to win it.” And, when all was said and done, when Toews was given Lord Stanley, he passed it to Timonen for the first skate.
“That’s it. “I leave this game as a Stanley Cup champion,” Timonen said. “And I can’t ask for anything more than that.”
He may not have played many minutes or contributed offensively for the team, but Coach Joel Quenneville said Timonen’s play made a difference. “Very happy for him–ups and downs–thought he would give us some real predictability in the last three games, there, settle our team down in our own end,” he said. “Got a good stick, stayed strong in puck areas and gets to go out a champion, which is special for a great career.”
Given the lacking state of Chicago’s defense in the playoffs, it’s no surprise one of the four powerhouse d-men would be honored as most valuable player. And, to anyone watching any series, there’s no surprise the logical choice for the Conn Smythe Trophy, voted unanimously, nonetheless, was Keith. Keith also happened to score the game-winning goal for the Blackhawks Monday rebounding his own shot with just under three minutes left in the second period.
After Michal Rozsival was injured, the Blackhawks relied very heavily on their top four defensemen–particularly Keith, who averaged 31:06 per game, playing more than 700 minutes this spring. He had three goals and 18 assists in 23 games.
“All the defensemen played well, we rotated everybody and everybody stepped up,” Keith said. “We have forwards that are so committed about playing defense, it makes things easier for all the defensemen, too.”
But his teammates are quick to commend his efforts.
“Unbelievable,” Seabrook said. “He’s been unbelievable for a long time and what he did this playoffs was amazing. Got a huge goal tonight to get us started and he’s just an amazing player.”
“No one more deserving,” Brad Richards, in the NHL since 2000, said. “Right from the first game against Nashville, I saw a different level of hockey that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen on my team. Just how he kept doing it and never showed any signs of fatigue. He’s probably the best player I’ve ever seen live. It was unbelievable what he did out there.”
The Conn Smythe Trophy was voted on by 18 selected members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association. Keith took first place from all 18. “It’s about time,” Toews said. “We all know he’s going to go down as one of the great players to play the game. In our room, we knew that before the playoffs, but he keeps proving it time and time again. So I couldn’t be happier for a guy like that. It’s really incredible.”
The Blackhawks went into Game Six leading the Lightning 3-2 in the series. They were yet to lead by more than one goal in a game. But, history would be in their favor. The team, 32-0-0 this year when leading after two periods, had Keith’s goal in its pocket going into the third. Goaltender Corey Crawford stopped 25 shots and the team blocked another 25. Then, with just over five minutes remaining, Brandon Saad got the puck to Richards who made a cross-ice pass to Kane for an insurance goal.
The Hawks then battled to hold on to their lead. And I held my breath for about five minutes, because, if anyone knows leads can vanish in seconds, it’s me. I witnessed it as the Hawks scored two goals in 17 seconds to take the Cup in 2013. Despite several attempts, they failed to get a third goal on the empty net, but they held the two-goal lead and a shutout for Crawford, who was an acrobatic stonewall in net for Game Six.
The team, of course, celebrated the extremely tight series (every other game was determined by just one goal) with the beautiful tradition of handshakes.
It’s been a tumultuous season for the Blackhawks, the very least of which includes injuries to Crawford and Kane that allowed players like Scott Darling, Timonen, Antoine Vermette (with two game-winning goals this series), and Andrew Desjardins onto the winning roster. But on a deeper level, the team lost equipment manager Clint Reif in December. Former teammate Steve Montador died suddenly in February. Both were honored on-ice after the victory. Daniel Carcillo‘s friend Missy Hollis joined him with a Montador sweater. Reif’s family joined the team and staff on the ice.
News broke this week that Blackhawks legend and Ambassador, hockey Hall of Famer, inventor of the “curved stick” Stan Mikita now suffers so strongly from dementia he’s unaware of his accomplishments or the current team’s run.
And, with Darling on the roster, this will be the first time a native “Chicagoan,” will be listed on the Cup. Backup goaltender Darling is from suburban Lemont and got his start playing youth hockey with the Vikings in Orland Park. He’s taken quite a journey to make it back home for the Cup, as well.
The Blackhawks were resilient. They had a lot of reasons to win the Cup. Last year’s loss to the Kings stung. They aren’t likely to keep the same group of guys much longer as the salary cap comes crushing on them. They had so many people on and off the ice, here and now-gone, to win it for.
And that they did.
These truly are the glory days for Chicago fans, after years without so much as a televised home game, to see the Cup raised three times in six years and lifted, at last, on “our” ice.
(As always, click the links for video clips or other information. Gifs via Stephanie Vail @myregularface)