Thursday, June 10, 2010

Lord Stanley now lives in Chicago!

What a year it's been, and what a way for the Blackhawks to clinch their first Stanley Cup since 1961.

A squeaker by Patrick Kane past Philly goalie Michael Leighton 4:10 into sudden death overtime that was at first reviewed was the difference maker.

Game 6 was the battle everyone expected, with the Flyers taking advantage of the home crowd and some of the craziest fans in sports to keep it close. But the Hawks proved to be too much for them.

It was a heck of a time getting to this point.

Just two years, hockey in Chicago was almost nonexistent.

The Hawks were mired in a decade-long slump, 15 years away from its last finals appearance (a 4-0 sweep at the hands of Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1992) and having only made the playoffs once (2002) since 1997. Attendance was down, and much of the blame was placed on longtime owner Bill Wirtz, who refused to show home games on television (to preserve the product for the "season reservation" holders, he said) and managed to chase away any talent and respect the Original Six franchise had.

In September 2007, he passed away after a brief bout with cancer, and his son Rocky took over the reins.

Rocky Wirtz immediately began to make changes. He struck a deal with Comcast SportsNet Chicago to begin showing home games, and broadened the deal later to include WGN-TV. He coaxed back Blackhawk legends Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, who had not been on good terms with Bill Wirtz, as "ambassadors" for the team. He also hired away John McDonough from the Cubs to be the team's new president, and brought back popular announcer Pat Foley, who had been fired two years earlier by Bill Wirtz.

The 2008-09 season proved to be the first step back. The Hawks squeaked into the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and weren't expected to go far, but they got by the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks before falling in five games to archrival Detroit.

This year, the Hawks came in as contenders, and they played like it all season, finishing second with 112 points behind the top seed San Jose Sharks. The first playoff round against Nashville at first was tough, but the Hawks got through before taking on Vancouver again. They stayed out west, and took the first two games in San Jose before finishing off the sweep at the United Center.

Then there was the final against Philadelphia, who were this year's Cinderella team. Qualifying for the playoffs as the East's seventh seed on the last day of the season, they knocked off New Jersey and came back from 3-0 down against Boston to crack into the conference finals against the Montreal Candadiens, themselves an eighth seed and playing over their pay grade. They knocked off Les Canadiens, and set up for a battle against the Blackhawks, who were the heavy favorites.

The Hawks proved to be up to the challenge, taking a high-scoring Game 1 6-5 last Saturday in Chicago before taking Game 2, 2-1, to take a 2-0 lead to Philadelphia. The Flyers, however, refused to die, winning Game 3 in overtime and dropping a mistake-filled Game 4 to bring the series at 2-2 back to Chicago Sunday night.

Game 5 proved to be the turnaround, as the Hawks behind Dustin Byfuglien's two goals and two assists and coach Joel Quenneville's line change to neutralize the Flyers' Chris Pronger and win 7-4.

But last night, Game 6, was a potential heart stopper, as the Hawks and Flyers went back and forth. But it was the Hawks and Patrick Kane who proved to have what it took, and the Stanley Cup comes back to Chicago for the first time in 49 years.

The Tribune reports that the victory parade in downtown Chicago will be at 10:30 a.m. Friday, with the rally at 11:30 a.m. at Michigan Avenue and East Wacker Drive. As Quenneville told NBC after the game, "The party's going to be unbelievable."

So true.

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