The Chicago Blackhawks are making their second trip to the Stanley Cup Final in four years after going through some pretty lean times, looking for the franchise's fifth Cup. How did it happen, how did they get here?
No team in the NHL had a better regular season than the Blackhawks as they took home the Presidents' Trophy this season. And no team has ever had a better start to a season than the Blackhawks had.
Their start to the season was the story of the first half of the NHL's truncated campaign. Through literally half of the games, the Blackhawks did not lose a game in regulation. They earned at least a point in the first 24 games, starting the season a remarkable 21-0-3. That shattered the NHL record for most games with a point to start a season and immediately set the bar that the Blackhawks had to reach the Final or the season would be viewed as a disappointment. No team that had started with points in at least 15 games had failed to reach the Final.
Chicago had its success behind the strength of the entire roster, including both goalies. The postseason has been turned over to Corey Crawford but during the regular season Ray Emery was a big part of their success, too. He earned more and more starts and finished with an absurd 17-1-0 record with a .922 save percentage. Not bad for a backup. The number of starts he was able to carry -- effectively, I might add -- allowed Crawford to stay fresher than most goalies of Cup contenders.
When it was all said and done, the Blackhawks were able to cruise to the finish line, taking the No. 1 seed in the West by 11 points over Anaheim, the Central Division by 17 over St. Louis and the Presidents' Trophy by five over Pittsburgh. Their final record of 36-7-5 capped one of the most dominant regular seasons we've witnessed -- albeit in a short season.
After doing plenty of work in recent years trying to rebuild the Stanley Cup team that was hit hard by salary cap restraints -- only eight players from the Cup team remain, though they are the big, core players -- GM Stan Bowman was awfully quiet when it came time for the NHL's annual overpayment deadline. Not that it was a mistake, the Blackhawks didn't have many glaring needs to address and if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
The one move that the Hawks did make seemed very minor at the time. They acquired veteran centerman Michal Handzus from the Sharks for a fourth-round draft pick. The Hawks didn't even know how much he could really be counted on as he had just two points in 28 games with the Sharks while playing 13:32 per game before the trade. But Handzus has had a very strong postseason in an increased role -- something he has earned. In 17 games he has two goals to go with seven assists, surpassing his regular-season points total.
Outside of that, all the Blackhawks did was sign top college free agent Drew LeBlanc but that has had no impact on this season. While the Blackhawks were in the playoffs, LeBlanc was released to USA Hockey to play in the World Championships. Perhaps he will be part of the future but not yet.
As the top seed in the West and having been guaranteed home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs, the Blackhawks started off with a good warmup because really, the Wild weren't equipped to truly compete with Chicago. There were times where the Hawks didn't look to be completely in gear and they did have some minor struggles with the Wild, but they still dismissed them in five games to move on with relative ease.
So after facing the eighth seed in the first round things were supposedly getting just a touch tougher with the seventh-seeded Red Wings. Things got a lot tougher. Against their longtime rivals from Detroit, the Blackhawks were looking outmatched early in the series. Detroit grabbed Game 2 in Chicago -- their only loss at United Center this postseason -- and held home ice to take a 3-1 series lead, putting the regular season's best team on the ropes. They had a huge Game 5 and were able to squeek out a Game 6 win in Detroit to force a Game 7 in Chicago. Even at that point the Wings weren't done, pushing the game to overtime where, finally, the Blackhawks ended the Wings' season. It was a challenge that seemed to bring out the best in the Blackhawks by the end of the series.
That brought the now battle-tested Blackhawks to the conference finals against the defending champion Kings. LA looked like a team that was starting to feel the sting of injuries and a couple of very demanding series before the conference finals and Chicago took advantage, playing some dominant hockey to win the first two games. Then they pulled the surprise of the series by actually winning a game in LA, something nobody else could do in the first two rounds. They were able to close out the series in Game 5 in double overtime. The Kings gave them everything that they had left in the tank and the Hawks withstood it all.
The steady players in the playoffs have been Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and the surprising Bryan Bickell. Bickell has been a player who has benefitted from some luck in the playoffs with eight goals so far, but he's been very good and has created his own luck at times too. Still, the offense was missing from the biggest of guns, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. That was until Kane woke up and was his usual self in the last two games of the series, scoring four goals including a hat trick in Game 5.
It took a while, probably about halfway through the Detroit series, but it looked like the Blackhawks finally found their game again, the game that led to that fantastic start to the season. After falling down 3-1 to Detroit, the Hawks won seven of the next eight games to get here.