This might date myself a tad, but I recall where I was in 1994 on May 24th. I was at home in New Westminster, tightly clenching my hands together in a tightly clenched prayer style shape. What happened to make me do this? The Vancouver Canucks, the local NHL team here was in double overtime against the hated Toronto Maple Leafs in game 5 of a best of 7 series we were leading 3-1. If we scored, we went to the finals for only the 2nd time ever (the first time I too lived thru, but didnt really understand the severity of it at the time since I was of an age still in single digits, we would lose in 4 straight games in the finals that year to the New York Islanders). A B.C. boy by the name of Greg Adams, whom we obtained in a trade with the New Jersey Devils several years prior would score the eventual winner 14 seconds into that 2nd overtime on a backhander that he slipped by future Canuck Felix Potvin. We were headed to the Stanley Cup finals. It was monumental in this cities sports history. We eventually would lose in the finals to the New York Rangers in game 7 by a narrow 3-2 score, but that moment is to many in Vancouver, 1 of the cities biggest in sports history.
So imagine the shock to Canucks fans who have endured that once before, when 17 years later, we found ourselves on May 24th, in a Western Conference finals, with a 3-1 series lead, in double overtime at home...again. by now, every die hard Canucks fan, casual fan, fairweather fan & even some non-fans know how that game ended. It ended with 1 of the zaniest series clinching goals ever, as Kevin Bieksa knucklepucked a shot from the point past an unaware Antti Niemi of the San Jose Sharks. Of the 18000+ fans in attendace, 2 TV crews & dozen players on the ice, it seemed maybe a 1/2 a dozen people total were aware that after an Alex Edler dump in off the boards that the puck deflected off a stanchion & back out into the middle of the ice. 1 of those rare people, Kevin Bieksa. The Canucks defender moved in towards the puck that gifted itself to him & drove a hard slap shot towards the Sharks net that wobbled & skipped its way past a confused Niemi. Fans were so unaware of what was going on, they only reacted when the likes of Alex Burrows & Henrik Sedin, near the net reacted. Sharks players reacted, but far too late, even Kevins own teammates were not all aware of what was about to happen. Another generation of Canucks fans will remember that moment, regardless how the finals end. Its 1 of those moments that sticks with you. Just like Greg Adams in 1994 on the very same date.
Of course, after the win, while the players partied in the dressing room together, fans did the same, out in public on the streets of downtown Vancouver. Granville street was completely closed off to traffic, as fans poured out to high five other strangers, wave their towels & flags & yell any & all phrases they could think of to express their jubilation. I saw a faux greenman, I saw an even sadder imposter- a blue man, I saw 30+ Stanley Cups of all types roaming the streets, being hoisted high & I also saw 2 creatures (pictured below) that I still dont have an explantion for, dressed in Henrik Sedin jerseys, sporting what I can only describe as some type of weird egg type head gear.
A couple of observations. The crowd seemed quite content & happy. Never saw even 1 angry look from 1 person to another. Im sure there were some mild issues, but they were few & far between...unlike when I was in Edmonton during their Cup run where there was stabbings almost nightly it seemed. There was also sadly for us guys (and girls here wonder why the world over consider girls here "snobby") no Red Mile action like in Calgary during their Cup run. The boobs in this town refuse to come out. To be honest, the overall electricity & excitement of the crowd, while high, was still short of anything I have seen in Edmonton, Calgary or even Vancouver during the 2010 Olympics. Will it be different if they win the Cup??? Perhaps. Starting June 1st, the Vancouver Canucks will try to do something they havent done in 39 previous seasons, 23 playoff appearances & 2 Finals appearances. Win the Stanley Cup. The oppnent, yet to be decided. Either the Tampa Bay Lightning, the team that crushed the Calgary Flames hopes last time in 2004, or the Boston Bruins, the team that last lost a Championship to 1 of the Western Canadian teams in 1990 to the Edmonton Oilers. One thing is certain, Canucks fans probably are pretty thrilled, it wont be a team from New York.
Its almost June & only 2 teams are left playing in the NHL. The Philadephia Flyers, a team few people expected to still be playing, and the Chicago Blackhawks, a team many people, myself included expected to possibly be playing still.
When this season started, the Chicago Blackhawks (even though I didnt like admitting it, still fresh off the sting of them beating us in the playoffs the year before, I was still a bit bitter) were my team to win the West....of course, it wasnt a resound vote of confidence. I did have my fingers dipped in several bowls, including the Calgary Flames (before they tried to build a team out of 3rd & 4th liners).
It came as little shock to anyone that the Blackhawks finished tops in their division & 2nd in the Western Conference this year. A lot of people expected the Hawks to take over the reigns from the long time Central Division champs, Detroit Red Wings.
I had the team getting this far possibly...I just didnt know who the goalie was that was going to get them here. Upstart Finnish goalie Antti Niemi has stolen the job from the greatest goaltender ever from France, Cristobal Huet. That is saying a lot for Niemi. Afterall Huet stole the job from superstar Nikolai Khabibulin & subsequently was responsible for the former Cup champion being run out of town. Now Niemi might do the same to Huet.
Round 1, the Hawks had a date with the Nashville Predators. I never took the Preds serious all year long, and in the playoffs that didnt change. I expected the Hawks to dispense of them quickly, so you could imagine my surprise when the boys from the Windy City were down 2 games to 1 from a place that thinks when someone says "puck" it must be someone with a speech impediment swearing at you. But eventually calm was restored & the Chicago Blackhawks got out of round 1 4 games to 2.
For their next match up, they were going to try & recreate history. The Vancouver Canucks, the Hawks 2nd round opponents of a year ago were back looking for revenge. With an Art Ross winner & improved scoring all around, the Canucks were seemingly silenced offensively by the defensive pairings of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook as well as Nik Hjarmalsson and Brian Campbell. The offense that was so explosive for the Canucks seemed missing, while the Hawks wasnt. Jonathan Toews stepped up in the series & started an offensive streak that is still in tact at this point. Dustin Byfuglien & Dave Bolland seemed too much for the thin & undermanned Canucks defense to handle. While offensively Patrick Sharp & Pat Kane did what was expected of them. The rematch ended the same way, on the same date a year later. Chicago Blackhawks win 4 games to 2
While the Hawks were running thru the west, another team San Jose Sharks were doing something most people didnt expect...they were also winning. With wins over the Colorado Avalanche after being down in the series, and a more shocking win over the surging Detroit Red Wings, who were starting to look like the Wings of old in the weeks prior, the Sharks seemed a formidable opponent for the strong Hawks team. The Sharks, known for being a great regular season squad, but always faltering come playoffs saved their predictable collapse for the Conference finals this time. The #1 team in the West in the regular season was beat down by the bigger and faster Hawks squad. While playoff choke artist poster child Joe Thornton was scrounging up 1 measely point in the 4 games, Jonathan Toews was busy getting 6 pts in that same time span, including game 2 GWG & assisting on 2 other GWGs. All the same suspects from the Canucks series were responsible in gutting the Sharks. Byfuglien, Bolland, Kane, Sharp, Seabrook & Keith did much of the damage. With the exception of Patrick Marleau & Dan Boyle, the Sharks were dead in the water from the word go of this series. The Chicago Blackhawks beat the top seeded Western team 4 games to 0 in the Western Conference Finals and took home the Campbell Bowl. With a sweep in the books, the Hawks started to set their sights on their ultimate goal...the Stanley Cup.
The Chicago Blackhawks are where many thought they would be. In the Stanley Cup Finals. Maybe just not against who lost thought they would be there against. They will face a foe that was 24 points behind them in the standings. A team that would have finished 11th in their conference. But the Hawks wont take them for granted I suspect. Afterall, the only meeting these two teams had this year, the Hawks lost, and not all that long ago, back on Mar 13th.
Chicago will hope for youngster Antti Niemi to hold up the incredible performance he has put in for just 1 more round, while hoping out of the blue wonder Michael Leighton doesnt do the same on his end for the flyers.
With Jonathan Toews running amuck, already tallying 26 pts, it really seems they dont need anyone else to get the job done. But others are getting the job done. Patrick Kane has quietly put together 20 pts, while Patrick Sharp has been alright too. Even Marian Hossa, who many have seen as unproductive these playoffs, still has 11 pts himself. Then theres the big Bs. Byfuglien & Bolland. Duncan Keith was slow starting offensively these playoffs, but is now up to 10 pts. Brent Seabrook, Nik Hjarmalsson, Brent Sopel & Brian Campbell have done a decent job at adding some offensive jump to an already strong line up from the back end. As long as John Madden & his rotating group of checkers keeps doing their job, the lethal Philly offense shouldnt have too much luck against Niemi.
Coach Joel Quenneville will expect victory from his players. A Campbell Bowl isnt enough to quench the thirst these guys have right now. They have recent Olympic Champions who know how victory tastes. They have other recent Olympians, liek patrick Kane looking to get the bitter taste out of his mouth of a near victory. he doesnt want to go thru that again I assure you. While its clear Toews, Kane, Keith, Byfuglien, Sharp, Seabrook and Niemi want this championship badly. So do the rest. Ben Eager and Troy Brouwer are just as hungry. They know this moight be the closest they ever get & there is no waiting for the next chance. Marian Hossa is at the finals for a 3rd consecutive year, with his 3rd different team. He is 0-2 so far, he certainly doesnt want to go thru the pain of losing in the finals again.
I believe Chicago Blackhawks will win this series. The Flyers might have proven me wrong 4 times already this year, but at the same time, the Hawks have proven me right just as often.
As much as the city of Philadelphia might want this after the long wait they have had. Chicago is even hungrier. Philly hasnt been a champ since 1975, Chicago 1961. The Hawks fans have had to suffer thru the horrid ownership of Bill Wirtz, a man who probably would have played the games without electricity in teh stadium if it were leglally allowed. This franchise has had no chance to be a serious competitor too often in the past couple decades. Missing the playoffs 9 of the past 11 seasons prior to now, the Hawks have suffered longer then Flyerrs fans. Two generaltions of Hawks fans havent seen a Cup hoisted, while only 1 generation of Flyers fans havent seen it happen. The Hawks have had only 3 other Cup appearances since the last win in 61. The Flyers in comparison have only missed the playoffs 6 times TOTAL since winning the Cup & have been to the Finals 5 other times since their last Cup win. Everything about this series suggests Hawks fans have suffered longer, and deserve this more.
Whoever wins the 2010 Stanley Cup will have ended some long suffering for its fans & will have prolonged the other fans suffering a little longer. For what its worth, I think it will be the fans of the Chicago Blackhawks who will have the celebratory party, and I suspect it will be after game 6.