Oliver: Team lifts Cup, weight of expectations

In 2010, the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, lifting the weight of 49 seasons of frustration for the Original Six organization in the process.

That one was for history, for the legendary players who had come before them, for the proud tradition of the Indian head sweater.

This year, the Blackhawks did it again. In so doing, they lifted the weight of oversized fan expectations, as well as cast aside those who doubted this group could repeat one of the hardest feats in all of sports. 

When the NHL lockout ended and the season started in January, some questioned the lack of off-season moves made by general manager Stan Bowman. 

With marquee players changing teams all over the league, it’s no wonder the additions of defensemen Sheldon Brookbank and Michal Rozsival didn’t generate a lot of excitement.

Yet, they, as well as the April acquisition of center Michal Handzus, proved to be just the pieces the Blackhawks would need.

Expectations among the Blackhawks faithful soared when the team began the season with a record-setting 24-game streak without a loss in regulation. 

Yet, when the Blackhawks lost during a regular season that was grueling in its lack of usual rest days, one would have thought the team had morphed into the Florida Panthers, so shrill was the outcry.

Never mind that the team didn’t lose three consecutive games until the second round of the playoffs.

Never mind that they finished the regular season with a record of 36-7-5.

This Stanley Cup was vindication that those early hopes were not in vain.

Once the playoffs began, few in the national hockey media seemed to remember the Blackhawks had won the Presidents’ Trophy for the most victories during the regular season.

Instead, it was all about the Detroit Red Wings, the defending champion Los Angeles Kings and the Boston Bruins.

And more specifically, it was all about their respective goalies.

Never mind that Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford and backup goalie Ray Emery had combined to win the Williams Jennings Trophy for best goals-against average in the regular season.

Never mind that in the game that Crawford had to listen to all that talk about his shaky glove side, Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask had let in six goals to Crawford’s five.

In the end, Crawford bested all of them and probably should have received the Conn Smythe Trophy for most valuable player during the NHL playoffs, no disrespect to Patrick Kane.

As hard-fought as that championship in 2010 was, this time seemed harder, tougher and more physically grueling. 

Maybe the players weren’t the only ones who bought into the idea that it would be a cakewalk after sleepwalking through that first-round series against the Minnesota Wild and then rolling over the Red Wings in Game 1 of the conference semifinal series.

Finding themselves down 3-1 in that series against the Red Wings proved the Blackhawks’ turning point in the playoffs; it just might have reignited their refusal to be denied.

In the end, the Stanley Cup Final series against the Bruins was one for the ages – gritty, intense and a lot of fun to watch. These teams were so evenly matched that it really could have gone either way.

Seventeen absolutely unbelievable seconds were the difference.

This year, the Blackhawks players raised the Cup for themselves.

They also lifted it for all of us who believed in them all season long.

Way to go, Blackhawks.

• Joan Oliver is the assistant news editor for the Northwest Herald. She can be reached at 815-526-4552 or by email at joliver@shawmedia.com.

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