Johnston: The perfect end to a season almost lost

The NHL has a new playoff format for the 2013-14 season.

BOSTON – That it came down to a firm handshake between Jonathan Toews and Gary Bettman was almost too perfect.

All of the hate and hurt and bad feelings that enveloped the NHL a few months ago was long gone by the time the Stanley Cup was presented to the Chicago Blackhawks on Monday night.

The most unusual and wacky of seasons ended in a familiar way – with the commissioner handing the most iconic trophy in sports over to an appreciative captain. This year more than others it symbolized just how far everyone had come in a short period of time.

“I was pretty excited to shake his hand again,” Toews said after Chicago’s stunning 3-2 win over Boston in Game 6. “It always means something good. It’s a pretty exciting thing.”

It wasn’t all that long ago when he would never dream of doing such a thing. Distant as the memory seemed while watching the Blackhawks parade the Cup around the TD Garden ice, Toews and Bettman were fierce adversaries during the four-month lockout that delayed the start of this season.

In fact, none of the game’s top players was more outspoken than Toews during that period – and much of his criticism was directed right at Bettman.

Remember this pointed comment from Oct. 5, less than a week before the 82-game season was scheduled to begin?

“This seems to be our commissioner’s bread and butter,” Toews had said then. “It’s almost like he is excited to take away hockey from the fans and the players just because he can.”

That and everything else was long forgotten by the time Bryan Bickell and David Bolland scored late goals just 17.7 seconds apart on Monday and Bettman called Toews over because he had the “honour of hoisting the Stanley Cup.”

The two men had cleared the air with a conversation in Los Angeles during the Western Conference final, according to the commissioner.

“We had a nice chat,” Bettman told during the Stanley Cup final.

When Toews approached centre ice on this night, Bettman congratulated him on winning a second championship in four years and said it was nice to see him again.

Onwards and upwards.

It formally brought an end to a Stanley Cup final that will go down as one of the best in history. Consider that with two minutes left in Game 6 – in the 23rd period of this series – the aggregate score between the Bruins and Blackhawks sat at 15-15.

The late goals ultimately tipped the scales in Chicago’s favour.

However, they didn’t distract from the fact that only a razor-thin gap existed between these teams, who threw everything they had at one another and made for a gripping final.

This was hockey at its best. This was what fans around North America, Europe and the world missed when labour negotiations forced the cancellation of games through October, November, December and half of January.

“We had the real hockey fans excited about this series,” said Bruins coach Claude Julien, who was extremely classy in defeat. “I think it’s been a good bounce back half-season for the league personally. I think the fans got back into it and you always appreciate their support because if I’m a guy on the other side, I know how I would have felt.

“Our fans are very forgiving and supportive, and that’s what this game needs.”

It also needed a player like Toews to perform the way he did in Game 6.

After getting his “bell rung” two nights earlier and being nailed to the Blackhawks bench for all of the third period, the Blackhawks captain returned to score the opening goal, assist on the tying one and lead by example from start to finish.

By any measure, it was an iconic performance – the kind of thing the league regularly celebrates and markets. Because it’s the Cup.

“He had a monster game,” Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. “Obviously, that goal for us was a huge goal at that time because we were on life support after the first period.”

He was far from alone.

Boston’s Patrice Bergeron played with a broken rib, torn rib cartilage and suffered a separated shoulder on Monday night. Talk about gutsy.

Bickell, Toews, Marian Hossa, Michal Handzus and Nathan Horton were also among those who fought through ailments that probably would have sidelined them during the regular season.

As unusual as the condensed 48-game regular season ended up being – “It feels like a weird year if I think about it,” Bruins defenceman Andrew Ference said earlier in the final – the playoffs were the same physical grind as always.

And when the games meant the most, normalcy returned.

Even though the lockout will still define the 2012-13 season in many ways, it was essentially forgotten by those who endured it once they reached the post-season.

“That was a long time ago,” Toews said. “Obviously we were worried (we would lose the year) at some point, but the fans came back and especially in Chicago, we played great hockey for them. The fans deserve this more than anybody. …

“It definitely doesn’t feel any different than it would in a normal season.”

That alone should be celebrated.

The Blackhawks were the class of this campaign after going undefeated in regulation over the first 24 games – “It was a crazy start to this season,” winger Patrick Sharp said – and ultimately winning both the Presidents’ Trophy and Stanley Cup.

It made the long months of the lockout more than worth it.

“I was excited about our team, I thought we had the makings of a great group here,” general manager Stan Bowman said. “They proved me right.”

Viewed from 10,000 feet, the sport proved something as well.

Despite three lockouts and a strike over the past two decades, growth seems to be a constant for the NHL. People love hockey and there is no better place to get it than from this league.

The 2005 Stanley Cup was lost to a work stoppage, leaving us short one champion and one chapter in history. At least this one wasn’t swept aside as well.

“I think that, if anything, there’s obviously a group of us that this is about the best case scenario that we could have hoped for,” Ference said. “Having a very entertaining season and a very exciting playoffs with a couple of Original Six teams (in the final). If you look back now, you’d say what a shame if we missed out on that.

“Despite a shortened season and all that, where we had to figure stuff out, there was real potential to lose everything.”

Once again, there is something for everyone to build on and gain.

Peace has been restored and it’s time to look ahead. “I think everything went well and look where we are now,” said Bolland, who scored the Cup-winning goal.

It’s a much better view than the one we had six months ago.

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