The Chicago Blackhawks were a hungry franchise. One of the NHL’s “Original Six” their last Stanley Cup had come in 1961. They had made the Finals four times since then, but never won it all. And the nine-year run from 1982-90 had been exceptionally frustrating—four losses in the conference finals. Then they lost in the first round in 1991. The 1992 Chicago Blackhawks made up for at least some of the frustration when they returned to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Chicago’s success was keyed by the second-best defense in the NHL. They had not one, but two future Hall of Famers in net. Ed Belfour was the primary starter, with 27-year-old Dominic Hasek backing him up. Anotehr all-time great, Chris Chelios was the top defensemen.
Offensively, the Blackhawks had some great individual talent. Jeremy Roenick scored 50 goals and finished fifth in the MVP voting. Steve Larmer and Michael Goulet combined to score 51 goals. But depth was lacking and Chicago ended up 15th in a 21-team league in scoring.
The Blackhawks were mediocre out of the gate and a game below .500 at the New Year. They took advantage of a soft January schedule to go 9-1-1 in a stretch that had a heavy diet of bottom-feeders. But it got Chicago above .500 and they never looked back. Chicago finished the regular season with a record of 36-29-15. It was good for second place in the old Norris Division (the teams of the Midwest). And if you wanted a reason for optimism in the playoffs there was this—the Blackhawks had beaten the division champion Detroit Red Wings five of seven times in the regular season.
That was no small thing in an era where the playoffs were strictly formatted by division, even more so than today. The top four teams in each division qualified, they were seeded 1 thru 4 and played their way off into the conference finals. Chicago would draw St. Louis in the first round.
The Blues had two outstanding players leading the way. Brett Hull scored 70 goals to lead the league. Brendan Shanahan was a 30-goal scorer. Both players would later win Cups in other places (Shanahan in Detroit, Hull in Dallas when he scored one of hockey’s most controversial goals). But St. Louis lacked depth and a contract dispute with a third star, Adam Oates, had forced the team to deal him to Boston in February.
Chicago took the series opener 3-1 behind two goals from Brian Noonan, but the Blackhawks started having problems at goalie, of all places. Belfour allowed four goals on the first eleven shots he faced in Game 2, was pulled for Hasek and Chicago lost in spite of two goals from Chelios. Hasek got the Game 3 start on the road, blew a 4-2 lead and was pulled for overtime. The game went into the second OT, but the Blues won again.
With their season teetering, the Blackhawks came out aggressively in Game 4, attacking the net and winning shots 37-19. It translated into a 5-3 win. They kept up the pressure back home in Game 5, this time outshooting St. Louis 40-24, getting two goals from Larmer and winning 6-4. Finally, the goaltending returned to form in Game 6. Belfour stopped 38/39 shots and made Roenick’s two goals stand up in a 2-1 win to seal the series.
Detroit was waiting in the Division Finals. They were stacked with Hall of Fame talent, starting with Steve Yzerman (45 goals/58 assists) and Sergei Federov (32/54). Paul Ysebaert, Jimmy Carson and Ray Sheppard were all 30-plus goal scorers. Nicklas Lidstrom was an elite defenseman. The Red Wings ranked top six in both goals scored and goals allowed.
They also couldn’t beat this Chicago team. The Blackhawks won the opener when Jocelyn Lemieux broke a 1-1 tie and scored the game-winner with 6:27 left. They grabbed a 2-0 lead in the first period of Game 2 and rode Belfour’s 24 saves to a 3-1 win.
Belfour struggled in Game 3, giving up four goals on just 24 shots and blowing leads of 2-0 and 4-2. But when Dirk Graham scored his second goal of the night with less than five minutes to play, Belfour made the 5-4 lead stand up. And the great goalie was brilliant in Game 4. It was a scoreless duel into the final two minutes when a goal by Brent Sutter completed the sweep and sent Chicago to yet another conference finals.
The Edmonton Oilers had been the most feared name in hockey during the latter part of 1980s. But Wayne Gretzky had been shipped out three years earlier and Mark Messier, the anchor of their 1990 championship team, was now in New York. The only holdover from that team was goalie Bill Ranford and there were only two notable scorers—Vincent Damphousse and Joe Murphy.
And it didn’t take long for the talent gap to show. Game 1 was tied 2-2 at the end of the first period and then Chicago started rolling. They got two goals from Larmer, two more from Roenick and rolled to an 8-2 win. They spotted Edmonton a 2-zip lead in Game 2, then unloaded 45 shots on Ranford, got two more goals from Larmer and won 4-2.
On the road for Game 3, the Blackhawks again spotted the Oilers the first two goals and again won the hockey game. This time they had to go overtime, but a Roenick goal secured the 4-3 win. And just like the first two rounds, Belfour took over when the clinch was in sight. He stopped 20/21 shots, Noonan scored twice and with a 5-1 win, the 1992 Chicago Blackhawks were going to the Stanley Cup Finals.
They were also going in red-hot, with eleven straight playoff wins. But awaiting them was another hot team—the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins had beaten two outstanding teams to start the postseason, in the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals. The Pens also swept their way through the conference finals, dispatching the Boston Bruins.
Pittsburgh was led by Mario Lemieux and a 50-goal scorer in Kevin Stevens. Joe Mullen scored 42 goals during the regular season, an there were 30-goal scorers in Mark Recchi and a 19-year-old Jaromir Jagr. They had veteran help from the NHL’s two most recent dynasties—Paul Coffey, a defenseman from the great Edmonton teams of the late 1980s and Bryan Trottier, one of the leaders of the New York Islanders who won four straight Cups from 1980-83.
That’s the long way of saying that Pittsburgh was simply a heckuva lot better than Chicago. The Blackhawks fought and made each game individually a competitive one. But the result was always the same. The Penguins won in a sweep, with Chicago only losing the four games by a combined five goals and never by more than two.
Roenick’s 12 playoff goals led the team, while Chelios had 15 assists in the postseason. Chicago had finally broken through and returned to the Stanley Cup Finals. Although maybe it’s a good thing that the fan base didn’t know how long the next wait was going to be—the Blackhawks did not return to the Finals until 2010 when they won the first of what would be three Stanley Cups in six years.