May 032013

image001(5)Tis Battered Hands That Hoist the Cup

By Rich Lindbloom 

Are you all ready for this?

It’s been quite a while since the Hawks have faced must-win situations. Escaping the regular season relatively unscathed, the Hawks have embarked on a quest for one of sport’s greatest trophies.

The symbolism the Stanley Cup embodies is one of self-sacrifice – leaving it all on the line – there is no other way. It’s victors are toothless warriors, who limp to the finish line. Not exactly Gettysburg, but close. The speed and strength of the players in today’s game make it hard to find any open areas of the ice in the regular season. In the Stanley Cup Playoffs, those areas are reduced to inches. Undoubtedly, blood, sweat and tears is an apt description of what’s required to hoist the Cup after a grueling two month war of attrition. Definitely time to keep your head on a swivel.

We’ve come a long way since the inaugural game in 1893 won by the Montreal Hockey Club that is pictured above. (Can you say “handle bar mustaches?) The Cup was the brain child of Lord Stanley of Preston. Lord Stanley had been appointed by Queen Victoria in 1889 as the Governor General of Canada. He and his family quickly took to the controlled mayhem on ice. His sons convinced him to donate a trophy to be an “outward and visible sign of the hockey championship.” Lord Stanley sent a message to the victory celebration of the three time champion, Ottawa Hockey Club in 1888;

“I have for some time been thinking that it would be a good thing if there were a challenge cup which should be held from year to year by the champion hockey team in the Dominion (of Canada). There does not appear to be any such outward sign of a championship at present, and considering the general interest which matches elicit, (i.e. the fans liked the game!), and the importance of having the game played fairly and under rules generally recognized, I am willing to give a cup which shall be held from year to year by the winning team.”

Lord Stanley paid the English equivalent of $48.67, which roughly would translate to $1,244.00 adjusted for inflation in today’s dollars. One of the stipulations he put on the Cup, was that the winning team, “at their own expense,” could engrave their team name and year they won it. The rest they say, is history. Out of the four major sports in North America, (assuming Curling, and their fantastic uniforms, are not a major sport), only hockey has a trophy passed on from team to team. With all the names that have been added to the Cup, (or stovepipe as it was known as they added the rings to accommodate all the teams and players), it’s as if history is being hoisted and passed along. Did you ever wonder what a relic like that would fetch at a sports memorabilia show? Questions like that are as unfathomable as “Why do baseball managers where a uniform?” I lose sleep pondering that query.

Before I delve into the “Great Expectations,” part of this piece, I’d like to bring up a team that epitomized what it takes to advance in the playoffs. Unfortunately, this team didn’t make the playoffs which will lend credence to the statement that I am crazier than I look.

However…my hat is off to the Columbus Blue Jackets for a remarkable season. Defying all odds while playing five of their last six games were on the road, (they went 5-1 over that time frame), the pesky Blue Jackets ended up tied in total points for the 8th seed in the Western Conference. They were ousted by the tie breaker rules in a cruel twist of fate.

It was about the middle of the season when we played the Blue Jacket’s twice in a four day period. I recall various bloggers describing these games as Chinese water torture, but I was thoroughly entertained by both games. The Jackets were in the process of losing 8 out of 9 games around that time, but I believe all but one were by one goal. Both games they lost against the Hawks were by a goal and caused deep anxiety in the Hawk faithful. Practically devoid of any top tier stars, they’ve starting gelling as a “team,” refusing to believe the press clippings that clearly had written them off. Something happened in that locker room. Apparently they didn’t believe they ‘sucked.’

Columbus ended the season with a win in front of their fans who stood the last few minutes of the game in a boisterous display of affection. It was reminiscent of Toews and Kaner’s first season when we narrowly missed making the playoffs. I was at the last home game and the ovation was spine tingling – You had to be there. Anyone present knew we wouldn’t be on the outside looking in for long. Sometimes, it isn’t all about winning – clearly the Blue Jacket fans were applauding the tremendous efforts of their team. Reportedly, their farm system is pretty well stocked with high draft picks – probably a good thing they’re leaving the Western Conference. While their fans will be expecting bigger and better things next year, Hawk fans are clearly harboring some Great Expectations for this season-to the level of imbecility. A word to the wise-when your attempting to climb Mt Everest, stop to enjoy and savor the beauty along the way. As they say, “it’s the journey, not the destination.”

I’m not so sure the casual fan has any idea how hard it is to get your name engraved on that Cup. Go to you-tube and type in HNIC 2013 Playoff Intro Video. It will give you a taste of what Playoff hockey entails. If I hear one more person tell me that this season will mean nothing if we don’t at least reach the Finals, my head will explode. Do any of these fans have a clue at how hard it is to advance in the playoffs? Luck, injuries, zebra’s and hot goaltending are formidable, unyielding forces. As Obi Wan Kenobi said, “The force better be with yo ass.” Or something like that.

Quite frankly, many fans are wetting their beds thinking about possibly facing the St Louis Thugs in Round Two. “They play physical hockey – we’re too soft to withstand the beating they will no doubt try to administer.”  The ever present “we’re not tough enough,” lament is echoing through the halls. A co-worker who went to Game One came in and told me the Hawks were lucky to beat the Wild on Tuesday. Another was quick to point out Boston’s and Pittsburgh’s easy Game One victories. “That’s the way a number one seed should treat the cliff dwellers,” he noted.

The thing to remember is you have to win four of these games. Remember the Mother’s Day Massacre the year we won the Cup, when Vancouver spanked us 5-1?  Every sportswriter in Chicago started throwing dirt on the coffin. Heck I can recall a few close games against the annoying Predators that were not exactly blowouts. As I recall, things turned out pretty good that year. By the way, the 09/10 Champs also had that too soft moniker label on them.

Sometimes I think we’d have been better off finishing in the middle of the pack, then the expectations wouldn’t be so high. Does this Hawk team have the wherewithal’s too make a run at the Cup this year?  Indubitably so, in my mind.

But, as were all too well aware of – the only sure things in life are death and taxes. Actually, I’m beginning to get the same feeling I did towards the end of the 09/10 season. This team will not look the same next year; enjoy it while it lasts. I’m thinking there are a few players on our team that will “take the money and run.” That’s a good sign for this year’s playoffs.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen three defensive pairings as strong as the Hawks have currently. The time on ice for the Hawks three pairings against the Wild was quite evenly distributed. All six rear guards played at least 22 minutes with Rozsival and Oduya logging 27 and 26 minutes respectively. Minnesota Fats got nothing on Johnny Oduya.

As Jeff Bartl pointed out in his excellent preview before Boxing with Bartl, “The pass Johnny Oduya made off the glass that sailed roughly over 125 feet and dropped perfectly in front of Viktor Stalberg, was disgusting. You could see him deliberately lining it up like a billiards player…”

Is it just me, or does Duncan Keith seem to have a little more giddy-up in his strides recently?  Show me a better defensive pairing in the NHL right now that Keith and Hjarmal’s. Even that big Grizzly bear that wears #7 seems to be coming out of hibernation.

Although fans still question the goaltending, Mr Big and Razor won the William M. Jennings trophy for the team that allows the fewest goals in the regular season. Both sported a 1.94 GAA. Remember when goaltending was the biggest question mark heading into the season? (unfortunately, it still is in many Hawk fans minds.) While Mr. Big will make the stop on Clutterbuck’s blazing wrister 9.9 times out of ten, those shots having seeing eyes every now and then. His save on Parise in OT just before Bicks scored was fantabulous. Of course the first thing out of the mouth’s of the Hawks naysayer’s the next morning was the dreaded “soft goal.”  Corey Crawford gaining confidence does not bode well for our opponents. By the way, get well quick Razor!

By the way, it might be a good idea to have a player fetch Crow’s stick instead of joining the rush next time he loses it. Take an icing penalty. That 45 seconds was a nightmare.

image004(1)Mr. Big talks strategy with Toews and Kane
“Get my stick in the corner next time.”

Toews and Kane are playing the best hockey of their careers, and that is saying a lot. No doubt you all saw Kane threading the needle on Big Hoss’s tally. What amazed me throughout the game though was 88’s intuitive plays when the Wild sent three players at him to try to take away the puck. He would either put the puck on another Hawks tape, or chip the puck to an area that a teammate could easily retrieve it. He plays hockey like Larry Bird played basketball. He seems to know where he’s going with the puck before it’s passed to him.

I like what Hossa said about playing with Kane – “I’ve realized all I need to do is get open and he will get me the puck.” Patrick also had two golden opportunities to score himself. One was off a rebound and another was on a breakaway that somehow Harding kept from going through his five hole. By the way, did anyone see the reporter’s interview in the locker room with Captain Seriousness after the game? Did he realize the Hawks actually won that game? Perhaps he was still wondering how Konopka was not penalized for his molestation attempt when they went crashing into Harding.

Our “Show Me the Money” line continues to amaze and befuddle. Bickell and Stalberg are certainly due for a substantial raise next year.  Bicks licks, are starting to bring back fond memories of dat Buflin guy. Actually, this was one of the few games I can recall when it seemed to me that the Hawks were the more physical of the two teams. They had several crushing blows, and Bickell laid out two of the Wild’s players. Basher’s game winner seemed to show a growing sense of maturity in the large left wing. The patience and touch he exhibited after corralling Stalberg’s sweet pass, was a move you would expect from Kaner.

The man from IKEA, Sir Valiant Viktor, had a fabulous game. Stalberg looked like he was shot out of a cannon all night long. He was a Ferrari on skates, seemingly possessing a 6th, and possibly, 7th  gears. He should have got a star for his efforts. By the way, if you haven’t already, check out Tazernation10’s feature “My Fourth Star,” over at Second City Hockey. I’ve often questioned the selections of the Three Stars of the Game as it appears the only players nominated are those who score goals or get shutouts. Case in point, how many times has Niklas Hjalmarsson been selected as a star this season? I rest my case. Another great selection for the fourth star in Game One would have been Ryan Suter. He skated over 40 minutes and played a huge part in keeping the Hawks at bay. Great play to thwart Hossa in the OT.

I certainly expect the Wild to put up a struggle during this series – it sure looks like they have adopted the Nashville Predator method for success. It seemed like the Wild had four men back most of the night, stifling the Hawks high flying juggernaut. Can you recall seeing any Wild defensemen pinching to keep the puck in the Hawk zone all night? They definitely played with a “take care of things in our end first” mindset. This proved highly effective in the first ten minutes of the first period when many fans erroneously thought “Minnesota outplayed us.” Huh? If sitting back in a defensive shell is outplaying us, I guess you could make a case for it. I’m not used to seeing the Wild play that type of game though.

Major Kudo’s to Josh Harding – if he were playing against any other team, I’d be cheering for him. Although, I’d substitute a cure for MS in a nano second over winning a Stanley Cup. Pretty sure there is a Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy in his future. No one expected Harding to play as well as he did in Game One.

Great Expectations, certainly can lead to great downfalls. Most of the guys in the office who watched the Pittsburgh/Islander Game One, have already coronated the high powered Penguins. You want to know what I say, “Pittsburgh, Schmitzburgh. When they added Jerome Iginla to their lineup they became the Yankees or the Miami Heat of the NHL. It’s obvious they are trying to buy a championship. The Hawks decided at the trade deadline they had a pat hand – preferring to win the Cup the old fashioned way – We’ll earn it.” The Penguins certainly know how to light the lamp, but when you add Douglas Murray to your blue line to help batten down the hatches, it makes you wonder about their defensemen.

At any rate, when all is said and done, it will no doubt be battered hands, aching bones and some toothless smiles that hoist the Cup. As many of you are well aware, it’s the captain who by tradition takes the first victory lap around the rink. There have been three notable exceptions. Wikipedia points out, “In 1993 after the Canadians defeated the Kings Guy Carbonneau handed the Cup to Denis Savard, as Savard had been the player that many Montreal fans had urged the Canadians to draft back in 1980. Another example was in 1998 when the Wings had defeated the Capitals when Steve Yzerman immediately passed the Cup to Vladimir Konstantinov whose career ended due to serious injuries in a limo accident the previous year and had to be wheeled onto the ice. The third incident was involving Joe Sakic and Ray Bourque when the Avs won in 2001 in the seventh and deciding game of the Finals, which would be the last game of Bourque’s 22 year NHL career.  When Sakic received the trophy, he did not hoist it, but immediately handed it to Bourque. Don’t you just love hockey players?

Whoever gets to hoist the Cup this year, know it will be a result of selfless, doggedly determined efforts of a team like the Blue Jackets. There are no I’s in the word TEAM. You win it often times as a result of your 7th,8th or even 20th star. The Cup is not given to anybody – you have to fight tooth, nail and claw to stand a “chance” of winning it. The vicissitudes of fortune play a considerable part. I don’t think it can be bought, although obviously Pittsburgh is giving it their best shot.  As Lord Stanley noted well over 100 years ago, “considering the general interest which matches elicit…” Little did he know what he had started.

May the force be with us.

 image002(4)Lord Stanley

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