Another spring championship round, another wild Game 6 comeback that leads to a title. Last week it was the Miami Heat, this week it was the Chicago Blackhawks. Trailing 2-1 with 1:16 left in the third period last night in Boston, the Blackhawks scored twice in regulation and with it won the 2013 Stanley Cup.
Boston created the pace and flow it needed for much of the game. Chicago only got off 15 shots in the first two periods, and while Boston wasn’t much more prolific at 18, we’ve discussed previously in the NHL analysis surrounding this series, that this defense-first pace is what the Bruins needed. The game plan looked ready to come to fruition when Milan Lucic scored with 7:49 to play to give Boston a 2-1 edge.
Chicago got a power play opportunity at 5:39, but did very little with it. The Bruin defenseman played some of their best hockey in this series, consistently sweeping away rebounds at the net and winning the chases to pucks along the boards. When they turned back the Blackhawks’ chance with the man advantage, Game 7 looked something “thisclose” to inevitable.
Then came the final eighty seconds of the game. Chicago pulled goalie Corey Crawford. Boston needed just one good clear of the puck to have a chance at an empty net goal that would have sealed it and sent everyone back to the Windy City on Wednesday night. Instead, Bryan Bickell, the hero of the Western Conference Finals against Los Angeles, but quiet in this series, put back a rebound and the game was tied.
It appeared that Boston mentally went into the locker room for overtime (or maybe that’s just me, a Bruin fan, projecting my own mindset onto the team). Either way, Chicago kept playing with the aggressiveness of a team that was trailing, created another rebound opportunity in close, and Dave Bolland tapped it in for the goal that won the championship.
The final frenzied sequence was the most visible example of Chicago getting the pace they needed when the game was on the line. The Blackhawks took 16 shots in the final period, getting them just over 30 for the game, the baseline I’ve used as an unofficial marker for which team is winning the tempo battle.
THE BEST TEAM WON
In this case though, I think the “30” baseline is a little misleading. There’s no question Boston got the kind of hockey game it wanted, just as they did in Game 5. I think the story here is the versatility of Chicago. There’s no doubt the Blackhawks prefer open ice, to showcase their skating and offensive skills, something that only Pittsburgh can rival them at.
But unlike Pittsburgh, Chicago does not shrivel up and shrink if they’re forced into the grind. When the Bruins made the Penguins grind, Pittsburgh cracked wide open. Chicago did not and found a way to win two consecutive games that were played at the Bruin style. Throughout this season, any reasonable statistical measurement told you Chicago was the best team in the NHL—including that under-the-radar stat we call a “Won-Loss Record” (in this age of complex sabermetrics and overanalysis, that’s only partially a joke). Perhaps the most vivid statement of Chicago’s excellence though, is that they could beat a genuinely outstanding opponent, at a pace that was not their own and do it with all the chips on the table. Hockey, more than any other sport, sees its best teams suffer upsets. That wasn’t the case in 2013.
AN NBA-NHL SYMMETRY
I drew the correlation between the NBA Finals and Stanley Cup Finals in the lead further up, and I was often struck by how similar both Finals were. In each case, you had a favorite who had gone on a historic win streak during the regular season, had flashy offensive talent, but whose mastery of the fundamentals was often underappreciated. In each case, you had an opponent who was a recent champion and respected, but yet also a little bit dissed, because it was expected a flashier team from their conference would emerge. But it was San Antonio and Boston who emerged over and above Oklahoma City and Pittsburgh.
In both cases, though the networks might have lost stars (Kevin Durant and Sidney Crosby), they more than made up for it with a series that left fans with countless thrills and partisans of any of the four involved teams on the verge of heart failure. There were great comebacks in Game 6. We didn’t quite get a pair of seven-game series, something that hasn’t happened since 1994, but we got the full ride in the NBA and the NHL gave us a “6 that feels like 7” battle, with three overtime games.
As far as how fans feel, I’ll only speak as a Boston fan and say that while I won’t deny feeling crushed right now, there’s a genuine sense of pride in how well the Bruins competed against an excellent team. I hope Spurs fans feel the same way. Maybe we should get together somewhere in between the two cities this summer for a group recovery session.
LOOKING AHEAD FOR THE NHL
I also hope, as someone who latched onto hockey well after I became a fan of the other major sports, that more “regular” sports fans will see this series and become bigger NHL fans themselves. I know the league office is arrogant to an extreme and when you produce four work stoppages and shortened seasons, ending up with your playoff games on a network (NBC Sports Network) that’s not a standard part of a cable/satellite package, you have yourself to blame. But this is a sport that’s one of the hardest to play and execute at and the raw tension that accompanies waiting for a goal in a close hockey game is like no other in sports. The ratings for these Finals were high, and hopefully more people will come back.
In the end, the 2013 NHL playoffs basically saved the season. I won’t say it was the best postseason ever—though I’m not ruling it out either—but it was incredible. Boston was down 4-1 to Toronto in the seventh game of the first round and 11 minutes left in their season, and won. Chicago was down 3-1 in games to Detroit in the second round, trailed in the third period of Game 6, went to overtime in Game 7, and won.
For all of Pittsburgh’s flaws, they can put on a dazzling display of hockey when they’re not pushed by a good team (how’s that for damning with faint praise?). The Los Angeles Kings showed that their run through the 2012 NHL playoffs as a #8 seed was no fluke, as they improved in the regular season and won two playoff rounds. There’s still storylines in wondering if league MVP Alex Ovechkin can ever get it done for Washington in the playoffs, and what happens to a team like Vancouver in the midst of transition.
And above all there’s this—when you’re disappointed in the NHL, there’s no such thing as “the long offseason.” In two months, preseason games will start and the regular season begins anew in early October. TheSportsNotebook.com’s NHL analysis will return then In the meantime, be on the lookout later this week for the release of a complete collection of all the articles written during the 2013 NHL season—including commentary on every single playoff game—that will be available for download on Amazon.