The Chicago Blackhawks are four wins away from a rare and precious thing in Chicago sports: a championship.
Blackhawks gear seems to suddenly be everywhere in a city starved for a winner. Chicago sports fans have seen just one Super Bowl champ since that game’s inception in 1967. Since 1918, Chicago’s two baseball teams have combined to win exactly one World Series. Only the Bulls have fielded consistently dominant teams for any extended period in recent years, winning six NBA titles during the Michael Jordan–era(s), though it’s been ugly since his departure.
The Blackhawks last won the Stanley Cup in 1961, but the team has recently captured the hearts of local sports fans, many of whom seemed indifferent just a few short years ago. The Hawks ranked next-to-last in the league in attendance in 2006-07, but they’ve drawn the most fans during the last two seasons. From the national anthem on, the United Center is a loud and raucous arena, which may bode well for the Hawks, who have home-ice advantage in the series.
This is the Blackhawks’ first appearance in the Stanley Cup Final since 1992. The Hawks advanced by sweeping San Jose to win the Western Conference title. They will have had six days to rest and prepare for the Philadelphia Flyers, who beat Montreal in five games.
Head coach Joel Quenneville replaced Hawks legend Denis Savard just four games into the season last year. At the NHL’s Stanley Cup Final media day, Quenneville, famous for his intimidating, icy glare and thick mustache, seemed both modest and appreciative of just having the chance to coach this particular team.
“I think as a head coach you always dream about the position we’re in,” Quenneville said. “You always love to, at the beginning of the season, you hope you envision yourself in this position as well. But I felt very fortunate to be here in Chicago last year at the right time, at the right moment of having a young group and a special opportunity.”
Modest or not, Quenneville led his team to the Western Conference finals a year ago, and the Blackhawks were even better this season. “Coach Q” has brought out the best out in young stars Jonathan Toews, 22, and Patrick Kane, 21.
Six Blackhawks, including Kane and team captain Toews, played for their countries in the Winter Olympics. Toews said the pressure and intensity of representing a hockey-loving country like Canada, “where it means the world to every single Canadian across the country to win a gold medal,” was good preparation for the post-season.
“It’s something that you want so bad… dealing with that pressure, dealing with everything that goes on off the ice, it’s very comparable, and that experience definitely helps you to learn how to bring your best game at this time of the year,” said Toews, who played with Blackhawks teammates Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook for Team Canada at the Vancouver Olympics.
Only three players have won both an Olympic gold medal and a Stanley Cup ring in the same season, according to the NHL. With a series victory, the Blackhawks could double that total.
Toews enters the Stanley Cup Final with a franchise record 13-game post-season point streak. The Blackhawks have also received stellar post-season performances from forward Dustin Byfuglien and goaltender Antti Niemi.
Niemi began the season splitting time with Cristobal Huet, but he’s emerged as a star this spring.
“I think after the first games, I’ve gotten more and more comfortable and confident playing,” Niemi said. “I don’t know if I’m surprised, but I think I’ve been really playing at the top of my game.”
As good as the Blackhawks have been, they know better than to underestimate Philadelphia. The Flyers have made an unlikely post-season run after having to win a shootout on the last day of the regular season just to get into the playoffs. Philadelphia later became just the third team in NHL playoff history to come back from a three game deficit to win a series, stunning Boston with four straight wins in the conference semifinals.
Blackhawks right wing Adam Burish said both teams are coming into the series expecting to win. “It’s going to be mean; it’s going to be nasty; it’s going to be hard,” he said. “It’s the Stanley Cup finals… it doesn’t matter who you’re playing against. This is it.”
The puck drops for Game 1 at 7 p.m. Saturday, and Game 2 is scheduled for Monday evening at the United Center. The Blackhawks would also host Games 5 and 7 in the best-of-seven series, if needed. The games will be televised by NBC (WMAQ-TV 5 locally) and cable station Versus, and all games can be heard on WGN-AM 720.
Hear from Burish and Toews in this report from WBEZ-FM Chicago Public Radio.