CHICAGO — The Chicago Blackhawks won their third championship in six seasons by beating Tampa Bay in six tight games in the Stanley Cup Final.
But Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews and teammates said Saturday the Anaheim Ducks were a tougher opponent than the Lightning. Chicago topped Anaheim in seven games in the Western Conference final.
"Anaheim had so many components of the game," Toews said. "The physicality, the speed, the skill of the top-end players like the (Ryan) Getzlafs and (Corey) Perrys we ran up against. They were such a tough team in goaltending and all aspects.
"That’s the series that stands out to me in the last number of years as far as the challenges."
The Blackhawks rebounded from a 3-2 series deficit against Anaheim, which finished first in the Western Conference regular-season standings, with wins in the final two games to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. Three of Chicago's games against the Ducks went to to overtime, including a triple-overtime 3-2 victory in Anaheim in Game 2 that was the longest contest in Blackhawks history.
Forward Andrew Desjardins, who joined Toews in a panel discussion at the team's annual convention, agreed.
"It was the hardest hockey I think I've ever been part of," Desjardins said.
But beating the Lightning wasn't easy. The first five games of the Finals were decided by one goal before Chicago prevailed 2-0 in the clincher.
"No disrespect to Tampa because I think they far exceeded our expectations for what they were able to do and how difficult they made things on us," Toews said to a packed hotel ballroom.
The crowd of about 2,000 gave Toews a standing ovation when he walked on stage and cheered often during a preview of the team's Stanley Cup video. Some of the loudest applause occurred during clips of forwards Patrick Sharp and Brandon Saad, who were traded in the past weeks as the GM Stan Bowman wriggles the team under the NHL's $71.4 million salary cap.
Even more raucous were fan reactions for Scott Darling, who was terrific in nets when No. 1 goalie Corey Crawford injured his foot in December. Darling stepped in again and won three games in Chicago's opening playoff series against Nashville when Crawford faltered.
A native of Lemont, Illinois, the 26-year-old Darling is the first Chicago-area player to win a Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks.
Darling's circuitous path to the NHL has endeared him to Blackhawk fans. He's listed as playing for nine minor league teams from 2010 to 2015 before making his NHL debut.
And Darling named them all -- while adding he lived in a log cabin when he played with the ECHL's Wheeling Nailers -- during a panel discussion with two former Blackhawks goalies Tony Esposito and Murray Bannerman.
Blackhawks fans also have embraced Darling for overcoming a battle with alcohol that caused him to wash out at the University of Maine and launched his minor league odyssey.
"I'll give you the Disney version of it," Darling told a crowd. "When I was 19, I was going to the University of Maine, which is a collegiate powerhouse, and was one of the top prospects in college hockey. I just got drafted by the Coyotes.
"It looked like I had an exciting future in front of me, but by the time I reached 21 it was all gone.
"There were things in my life that we're slowing me down. So I made some changes in my personal live and got completely focused on hockey and truly dedicated myself to the game I've loved since I was a little kid."
While Darling got cheers for his turnaround, the 72-year-old Esposito got the most laughs.
Esposito played 15 seasons with the Blackhawks from 1969 to 1984, and quipped about his "crabby" game-day demeanour and eyesight that forced him to wear old-style contact lenses that used to "torture" him.
"Every time I used to have a lousy game, I'd be on the phone the next morning blaming my eye doctor," Esposito said.
Esposito also admitted to losing one of the lenses late in a game when he was nursing a shutout.
"I didn't want to leave the game," he said. "So I played that last five minutes with one eye closed and managed to get the shutout. I still remember that, I was so petrified."