Friday, July 31, 2015

Drop the puck, already!

After 50-year drought and six-day layoff, Blackhawks zero in on the Cup.

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Blackhawks goalie Antti Niemi is looking to stay sharp after holding the San Jose Sharks to seven goals in four games.
Blackhawks goalie Antti Niemi is looking to stay sharp after holding the San Jose Sharks to seven goals in four games. PAUL BEATY / Associated Press
Blackhawks goalie Antti Niemi is looking to stay sharp after holding the San Jose Sharks to seven goals in four games. Gallery: Drop the puck, already!
Six days ago, the Blackhawks played a hockey game. Five days ago, the Flyers played a hockey game. Since then, we have set mutton-chopped Jonathan Toews against his live-wire doppelganger Mike Richards. We have concocted collisions between burly Dustin Byfuglien and Chris Pronger, who is both redwood and evergreen all at once.

We have imagined rat-a-tat sieges of Antti Niemi and Michael Leighton and pondered who might crack first. We have ridden the ebbs and swells of Patrick Kane's now ubiquitous mullet and considered forming a search party for whatever is lost in the abundant locks and whiskers of Scott Hartnell.

We have considered a half-century of agony versus 35 years of frustration, weighed talent against destiny, felt the open and sincere urgency to seize these two weeks with these two rosters before callous business decisions roil and rend them apart.

Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals is Saturday at the United Center. It's about time.

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"This is the ultimate thing," Toews said. "The entire hockey world is watching this."

A city is rapt on this long holiday weekend, giving the Hawks its undivided attention and seeing all too clear from here to 1961. It knows too well what it has seen in the past six weeks and how fleeting that could be given the realities of today's NHL.

It took the Blackhawks a full round, and then some, to remember that reputation and talent are trapdoors to nowhere in the postseason. Once they complemented ability with the abrasiveness of steel wool, no team in the NHL playoffs has looked better or more complete.

The subplot of the hard choices that loom deeper into the summer has been vetted time and again this postseason. But it is no less real with the Cup four victories away, which perhaps underscores the immediacy even more. You want an encore with this cast of characters?

"It's nearly impossible," veteran center John Madden said. "Guys are well aware of that. Ever since the lockout, we're all well aware that when you have a good team, and you have good core guys, when you get an opportunity like this, you want to make the best of it."

Said Kane: "Who knows what's going to happen this summer. We have a great group here that we would love to keep together, a team we can really win with, and hopefully we can do some special things here in the next couple of weeks. We'll let the summer play out, but for now, we're worried about this."

And, actually, forget about hauling out the abacus to calculate salary cap constraints. If not a single face changed, if no newbie needed instructions not to step on the Indian head embedded in the dressing room carpet, there is zero promise the Hawks will have this chance again soon.

Consider the team they just dispatched, the Sharks. Few franchises have as much talent. Perhaps no franchise has such a tortured history of postseason belly-flops.

The Hawks, thanks to long-term deals for certain key players, are built for the future. Those contracts are guaranteed. The payoff isn't.

"I don't think it matters how good your team is down the road," Toews said. "You could have a great team and be like the Sharks, win a bunch of regular seasons in a row and not get a chance to play for the Stanley Cup. It doesn't really matter.

"We don't know when we're going to get this chance again, so we're not thinking about that time. We're thinking about right now."

Right now, there's a convergence of talent and timing and history on Madison Street. So many expected the Hawks to be here, and here they are. And while that's fine, a 49-year wait is instructive on one point.

There's no time like the present.

Chicago Tribune
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