Blackhawks Leaving No Doubt over Stanley Cup Favorite Status After Sweeping WildMay 8, 2015
The United Center used to be such a dark, lonely and, frankly, scary place after hockey games. Any hockey reporter who covered the NHL from the mid-1990s to the early aughts can tell you how impossible it was to get a cab on deserted Madison Street even 10 minutes after a Chicago Blackhawks game.
Most of the small crowd had quickly dispersed by then, so it could be a long wait before any cab ventured down the dark street in one of the toughest parts of the city. Inside the building, the franchise suffered from the intransigence of longtime former owner Bill Wirtz, who alienated fans by an unwillingness to spend on players or lift the blackouts for local TV.
Out of Wirtz's scorched earth, there grew the green shoots of top draft picks Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and, well, everything has changed.
The two stars, still in their 20s but with so much success already, led the Blackhawks to another Western Conference Final Thursday night with a 4-3 win and sweep of the Minnesota Wild.
When the Blackhawks next play at home, either against the Anaheim Ducks or Calgary Flames, there won't be an empty seat in the house, just as there hasn't been for several years now. And there will be plenty of pre- and postgame activity to see and do around the revitalized area surrounding the massive arena.
The Blackhawks, once a kind of fall-of-Rome symbol in the league, are again the favorites to win a Stanley Cup. If they do, it will be their third since 2010. This is also their third straight trip to the Western final and fifth in the last seven years.
How good was Kane in this series? Good. Real good. A goal-in-every-game good. For a player who some worried wouldn't even be playing now because of a late-season injury (broken clavicle), he's been as good, or better, than he's ever been.
"That was the biggest thing in this series, we got some leads. We got out ahead and had some room after that to kind of, not open things up, but play good defense and get some things going the other way," Kane said afterwards in a NBCSN interview.
Whether it's Anaheim or Calgary, Chicago has to be the favorite to win, and no matter which team it'd play from the East, that applies even more. The Blackhawks' high-end players are the best collection of talent in the league, led by Toews, Kane, Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa and Brent Seabrook.
After some shaky early-playoff moments in net, Corey Crawford has settled down again. Aside from a couple of late goals that made things hairy in the final minute of Game 4, Crawford looked big in net all night, as well as the whole series.
How do Chicago's top guys never get bored? No, they don't win a Cup every year, but five Western finals in seven years officially qualifies as a run.
They just don't, Kane told the Chicago Sun-Times' Mark Lazerus: "We’re excited about being in [the] playoffs and being in a position to win every game. That’s the biggest thing with this team. … By no means are we ever satisfied.”
As Blackhawks veteran Patrick Sharp told Lazerus: "The core group that’s been here is extremely proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish. And this team has come together at the right time. … We know how hard it is to get to the conference final, so we’re going to celebrate that fact and be ready for the next round.”
As for the Wild, they deserve the "choke" label a bit. Three years and counting, Chicago has bounced the Wild from the playoffs. This year was supposed to be different: their true learning-curve year, the one where little brother would finally beat up big brother.
Nope. This was the easiest series of them all for the Blackhawks, with Minnesota's top forwards doing absolutely nothing.
By the end, the Wild were reduced to needing Matt Cooke to reach into his bag of dirty tricks. As the following GIF shows from @PeteBlackburn, Cooke stuck out his knee in an attempt to injure Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson:
Yet even that wasn't enough.
The Blackhawks were too dominant for Minnesota during the series, and there's little reason to think Chicago is slowing down. Its mix of elite talent and quality depth, paired with plenty of momentum, leaves little doubt that it's the team to beat in these playoffs.