While fans have witnessed some entertaining Stanley Cup Final matchups over the last few years, most can argue that this year’s installment took the cake as the best matchup in recent memory.
With all due respect to the matchups in the post-lockout era (or perhaps I should call it the post-canceled season era), this year’s Final between the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins was a special one – and the timing really could not have been more impeccable.
After the NHL came back from its infamous canceled season of 2004-05, they needed to make a statement, something that would bring their own fans back let alone gaining new ones.
After a fairly-successful regular season and an underdog-laden postseason, the Stanley Cup Final went the full seven games – but it included the Edmonton Oilers and Carolina Hurricanes, two franchises whose only sense of a rivalry occurred during the days of the long-forgotten World Hockey Association while the Hurricanes were still the Hartford (nee New England) Whalers.
After an uneventful 2007 Final between the Anaheim Ducks and Ottawa Senators, the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins put on a show the following spring where the Wings won the Cup in six games. The two clubs met in another memorable Final in 2009 but it was Pittsburgh who won this time in seven games.
After the Blackhawks defeated the Philadelphia Flyers in six games in 2010 followed by Boston eliminating the Vancouver Canucks in seven in 2011, the Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils met in 2012 but fans outside both markets were not tuning in. Despite turning out to be an entertaining series, many fans just couldn’t get excited for a Los Angeles/New Jersey rivalry. But this year was a different story.
Heading into the Conference Finals, the NHL found itself in an ideal situation. After going through a painful lockout, the league – and its players – knew they needed a good regular season but an even better postseason. When the playoffs were down to four teams, they happened to be the four most recent Stanley Cup champions – the first time that happened since the birth of the NHL’s Expansion Era in 1967. But while the appearances of Pittsburgh and/or Los Angeles would have made for an exciting Final, hockey purists were salivating at the prospect of seeing the first all-Original Six Final since 1979 – and that’s just what they got.
After anticlimactic Conference Finals (the series lasted just four and five games respectively), the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins were set to square off and while the two franchises never had much of a rivalry, there was a plethora of history involved included some of the game’s greatest players from each side. While Bobby Hull represented the Blackhawks, Bobby Orr represented the Bruins. Phil Esposito celebrated most of his Hall-of-Fame career in a Bruins jersey while younger brother Tony made his Hall-of-Fame career while donning a Blackhawks jersey.
On paper, it was a classic matchup. On the ice, it was even better.
Through the first four games of the series, three went to overtime. Games 1 and 4 were won by Chicago with the former going to triple-OT while the latter saw the Blackhawks surrender two two-goal leads before ultimately prevailing.
Of course, that isn’t to say that nothing in between – or even afterwards – lacked suspense.
Countless (not to mention glorious) scoring opportunities, timely goaltending, clutch offense and sheer resiliency underlined the 2013 Stanley Cup Final – and for each and every fan who bought a ticket for any of the six games, it isn’t a stretch to suggest that they all got their money’s worth and then some.
From Tuukka Rask to Corey Crawford, Milan Lucic to Bryan Bickell, Patrice Bergeron to Patrick Kane, the clutch players from each time weren’t the least bit hesitant to perform when it mattered most.
In a year that began with so much anger and hostility, the NHL season could not have ended any more prophetically.
With the Bruins up 2-1 late in the third and on the verge of forcing a seventh game in Chicago, the Blackhawks tied the game with 1:16 remaining in regulation courtesy of Bryan Bickell. Overtime was coming up – or so we thought.
Just 17 seconds later, the Hawks were pressing again and while a point shot was stopped by Tuukka Rask was stopped, David Bolland jumped on the rebound and potted it home to give Chicago the lead with just 59 seconds remaining, leaving the TD Garden stunned.
While the series didn’t have an overtime hero like Bob Nystrom or Jacques Lemaire (a possible silver-lining for Bruins fans), having the series ended the way it did was truly original. Questions of whether they Blackhawks won it or the Bruins lost it become hot topics on debate shows everywhere leaving this hockey season one that started with so much doubt, so much skepticism only to have it end with such promise and optimism for both the short- and long-term future of the sport.
After a 49-year drought, the Chicago Blackhawks have now won two Stanley Cups in the last four years and while Patrick Kane wasn’t the most popular choice for the playoff MVP, it was a classic Final nonetheless ended, fittingly enough, with the season’s best team finishing on top when it was all said and done.
The Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins gave even the most fair-weather of hockey fans a reminder of why they fell in love with the game of hockey to begin with. The finish to the season only intensifies my excitement for the upcoming season. I sincerely hope you all share my excitement.
See you all again in October.