CHICAGO — Once the Blackhawks wondered. Now they know.
They know that they are good enough to parade the Stanley Cup around the ice at United Center on Monday night. They know that if they miss this opportunity they might never get it back.
This is a great team — the golden era for an 89-year-old organization — but it is also a team in transition. They battled through malaise in the regular season, seeing 11 teams win more regulation and overtime games, and defied death in the Western Conference final.
Now they’ve taken control of a coin-flip Stanley Cup Final and don’t want to cede it back to the Tampa Bay Lightning. If they win the next game, they’ll lift the 35-pound silver trophy on home ice for the first time since 1938.
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Throughout these playoffs, much has been made of the Blackhawks experience. But it must be remembered that experience works in many ways.
Past success can be a reminder of possibility, but it also builds expectation. In Ken Dryden’s seminal work “The Game” he writes about the 1978-79 Montreal Canadiens season, the last of his Hall of Fame career and the final jewel in their dynasty.
Dryden discusses how that group could feel opportunity slipping through its fingers as it pushed for one final Stanley Cup. Some parallels with a Blackhawks team that will be further weakened by the salary cap this summer are clearly there.
“If dynasties come for a crush of reasons, dynasties die one reason at a time,” Dryden wrote. “It starts like a slump. The immense momentum of winning slows; the slump doesn’t end. The momentum turns. Everything that fits doesn’t fit.
“Obligations turn cranky; expectation and attitude disappear. It’s what each of us has felt at times this year. Slowly the team is joining the pack.”
Chicago will be ever-closer to the pack next season. The Los Angeles Kings won two of the last three Stanley Cups and missed the playoffs this spring. The Boston Bruins, with two trips to the final in five years, did the same.
You look at a maturing team like Tampa and can see the sands shifting.
Even with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Marian Hossa signed to long-term deals there’s no guarantee they’ll again scale these heights. Each opportunity to win the Cup must be treated as though it could be the last.
“When you’re 15 years into your career, you know that you don’t get a chance to win the Cup every day, or every year,” said veteran Blackhawks centre Brad Richards, a pending free agent. “For me, I don’t know where I’ll be playing next year, I don’t know if I’ll be done in two or three years. So when you have a chance like this, you take it very seriously.”
In a series where the teams haven’t been separated by more than a goal at any point it’s going to be tough to close things out. The gameplan, according to Richards, is to plant a seed of doubt in the minds of the Lightning early.
“Our job is to try to take that belief away,” said Richards.
With the Stanley Cup having made the trip to Chicago ahead of Game 6, there was a buzz in the city. “We want the Cup” signs have popped up around downtown and Sunday’s Sun-Times headline captured the anticipation: “One Goal: One More.”
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The Blackhawks won the 2010 championship on the road in Philadelphia — “We didn’t really know how good our team was,” Toews has said of that group — before capturing the 2013 Stanley Cup in Boston.
A third title in six years would match the total won in the organization’s first 80 years of existence.
“It’s not just another game, but that’s the way we’ve got to try to approach it,” said defenceman Brent Seabrook.
That is the kind of thing players in this situation routinely say, but never really do. This a big moment, a defining moment.
The culmination of seven hockey seasons unlike any this city has ever seen.