From our recent special issue, the Greatest Teams of All-Time, we look at No. 15 on our list of the best teams in NHL history.
You look at some of the teams and some of the stars the Chicago Blackhawks have had over the years and you marvel at how they couldn’t have won more Stanley Cups. Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita won just one apiece. Tony Esposito, Denis Savard and Ed Belfour, all Hall of Fame players and Chicago icons, combined for a grand total of nada while playing there. Then came along Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, one a playoff MVP in 2010 and the other three years later.
We wonder if there will be statues outside the United Center when Kane and Toews retire, the way there are of Hull and Mikita. If sheer excellence is any prerequisite for having your likeness immortalized on Madison Avenue, the sculptor might want to start heating the brass up now.
Going into 2012-13, there was no overwhelming indication the Blackhawks were going to be the league’s most dominant team and one of the best in the history of the game. Of course, in today’s NHL, there rarely is. In the late 1970s, it was basically the Montreal Canadiens, then everyone else battling to see who would get to lose to them in the Stanley Cup final. Parity, an expanded league and the salary cap have made those kinds of teams almost extinct.
Almost. We have to now redefine the word dynasty as it pertains to NHL teams. And any team that wins two Cups in four seasons has to be considered a modern-day dynasty, particularly when it becomes the first to win two championships in the salary cap era. The Blackhawks have done that, but it was their performance in the truncated 2012-13 that puts them in the rarified air among the greatest teams in history.
The numbers themselves should be evidence enough. The Blackhawks started the season by going 24 games without losing a single one in regulation. That accounted for an NHL record and put the Hawks No. 3 all-time behind the 1977-78 Canadiens (28 games) and 1979-80 Philadelphia Flyers (35 games) for overall undefeated streaks. They finally lost in 60 minutes, 6-2 to the Colorado Avalanche, but didn’t let up, compiling a record of 36-7-5. Projected over an 82-game season, that would have given the Blackhawks 132 points, which would have tied them for the most points in one season in NHL history with the 1976-77 Canadiens (who amassed their total in just 80 games). As it stands, their .802 winning percentage ranks fifth best.
Before the final, Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman was asked about some of the trades he didn’t make on this team, largely when he stubbornly refused to bow to public pressure to deal Kane, who had embarrassed himself and the organization with a drunken weekend in Madison, Wisc., during the summer of 2012. Bowman believed in Kane and Kane responded with the best season of his career, proving to Bowman his faith was well placed and that he could mature and be worthy of his status with the Hawks.
Bowman also likes to talk about moments in time that can change the fortunes of everything. The one for these Blackhawks came in the second round of the playoffs when the Detroit Red Wings were holding a 3-1 lead in games and Toews was being used as a human pinata. Late in Game 4, Toews lost it after being called for a penalty and defenseman Brent Seabrook calmly skated over to the penalty box, leaned in and talked Toews off the ledge. It proved to be a turning point for Toews in that series as the Blackhawks roared back to take the series by the skin of their teeth, winning Game 7 in overtime on Seabrook’s winner. Then in the final, with the Boston Bruins blanketing Toews and defenseman Zdeno Chara shutting him and Kane down at every opportunity, Seabrook stepped in again.
With the two sitting in the hotel in Boston before Game 4, Toews was brooding and feeling a little sorry for himself when Seabrook asked him a question.
“He just asked me, ‘What are you thinking about?’ ” Toews recalled. “And I was like, ‘Nothing. What are you thinking about?’ And he looked at me again and I realized what he wanted me to say. I snapped back and said, ‘Scoring goals.’ There you go.”
Seabrook would say later that he was starting to get a little tired of hearing everyone talk about how well Toews was playing. Yes, he was playing well, but he wasn’t scoring. And that provided another moment in time. In that game, Toews and Kane were reunited as linemates and instead of shying away from Chara, they both went right into the belly of the beast. They dumped the puck into his corner and used their speed and skill to keep it away from him.
Chara was effectively finished as a force in the series and the Blackhawks won three straight to take the Stanley Cup in impressive fashion.
But it, of course, wasn’t just Toews and Kane. The Blackhawks got timely contributions from the bottom half of their forwards. Andrew Shaw scored in triple overtime to give the Blackhawks a 1-0 lead in the series. Duncan Keith and Seabrook were rocks on defense. Bryan Bickell played the post-season of his life and David Bolland, who would get traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs shortly after the season, scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal in a wild last minute of Game 6.
But nobody wins a Stanley Cup or accomplishes what the Hawks were able to do without lights-out goaltending. Esposito, Belfour and Dominik Hasek are all in or bound for the Hall of Fame, but none of them did what Crawford was able to do as a Blackhawk. During the Western Conference final, people wondered why Crawford was giving up so many goals to his blocker side, then in the Stanley Cup final, his glove hand was victimized a number of times, leading him to reckon that both of his hands must have been lousy.
Crawford grew accustomed to silencing his critics. And there were a number of them, many of whom thought the reins should have been handed to backup Ray Emery on a number of occasions.
“I never even thought about (the criticism),” Crawford said after the series. “Everyone in our room had confidence in everybody else and we never lost that.”
Crawford didn’t lose the confidence of his coach or his GM, who had watched him work his way up from the minors as a homegrown Blackhawk.
“Corey has been fantastic all season long,” Bowman said prior to the final. “A lot of people had questions on Corey. He’s really been progressing every year. He’s a guy we’ve had in our organization since we drafted him. We’ve taken our time allowing him to improve year after year. We’ve always had confidence in his ability.
“It’s just nice to see now him getting the recognition he deserves. The consistent play that we’ve had game in, game out, it’s been that way from the beginning of the year. We know we’re going to get a great performance from him every night. When your goaltender plays well, like he has, then it allows you to just play your game and not have to worry about goaltending.”
When it came down to it, the Blackhawks didn’t have to worry about much of anything in 2012-13. They won the Presidents’ Trophy, becoming the first team in five years and just the second in 10 to lead the league in the regular season and win the playoff tournament. Toews was a worthy winner of the Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward and Crawford and Emery shared the Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals against.
But it was more about the collective with the Blackhawks, who relied on a different cast of characters as they came out of the gate as the best team in NHL history and through the playoffs. And when the Blackhawks most needed to mine their reservoir of resilience, they did so by scoring goals 18 seconds apart in Game 6 to win the Stanley Cup. That was really a microcosm of their entire season. There’s a fine line between winning and losing and the Blackhawks walked it many times, somehow coming out on the positive side most of the time. There were a number of times when they could have had their record streak halted and they could very well have lost Game 6. That would have made it one game for everything and if they lose that game, their entire historic season would have been for naught. But as they always did in 2012-13, the Blackhawks found a way and by doing so, they found their way into the annals of the best teams in history.
“Yeah, it’s kind of like the season we had,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said of Bolland’s Stanley Cup winner. “It was one of those seasons we were saying, ‘We’re almost charmed the way we started the season and the way we ended.’ Nobody saw that one coming either way.”
This is an excerpt from THN’s special issue, Greatest Teams of All-Time.