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With his team up 2--1 against the Wild early in the first period on March 5, Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman remained silent as the tension built around him. On his left, in a suite overlooking center ice, was Norm Maciver, his assistant G.M., who said to himself, "C'mon boys, their D is gassed." On Bowman's right was Al MacIsaac, a club vice president, who shouted, "Open, right there! Right there!" Around them, a crowd of 21,836 filled the United Center to the rafters, oblivious to the 10-inch snowstorm that was blanketing Chicago. As his team swarmed the Minnesota zone, Bowman reflexively uttered a single syllable. "Bick," he said softly. With that, bruising third-line winger Bryan Bickell swooped into an open lane to the left of the net and wristed the puck past goalie Niklas Backstrom. One syllable; one goal. Bowman gets bang for his Bick. "It's a different guy for us every time," he said after the period ended with his team leading 4--1. "New story, same result. Not bad."
Bowman was underselling. The Blackhawks have become a model of rotating heroes and a beacon of organizational renewal following the breakup of their 2010 Stanley Cup--winning roster. More than that, they are the best team, and the best story, in sports, forging an implausible and historic start that is a boon for a league battered by its third lockout in two decades. Since the 48-game season began on Jan. 19, NHL arenas had been filled to 96.7% capacity through Sunday—including 109.4% in Chicago, where the sellout streak has reached 203 games.
Seconds after the Blackhawks' eventual 5--3 win over the Wild ran their record to 20-0-3—the best start previously was 12-0-4 by the Ducks in 2006--07—a fan raised a sign: #23 ISN'T JUST ABOUT MICHAEL ANYMORE. In the building that sports a bronzed statue of a soaring Michael Jordan outside its employee entrance, the Blackhawks no longer seem like a secondary tenant. Indeed, their bandwagon has become a convoy. Paul Konerko, the first baseman for the White Sox team that went 11--1 in the 2005 postseason, says, "What [the Blackhawks] are doing is more difficult [than what we did] because when you're in the regular season it's easy to have a bad one here or there." In an interview with CSN Chicago, former Bulls forward Toni Kukoc compared the Blackhawks with the city's 1995--96 NBA champions, who won a record 72 games. "Both [teams] are a perfect match of experience, leadership, right attitude and chemistry," he said.
"The Miami Heat can win 15, 16 games in a row," says Patrick Kane, the Blackhawks' star right wing and an avowed fan of LeBron James, "but how many teams can really win an NBA title? Three? Four? I mean, the Kings won the Cup as an eight seed last year. In our league, if the 30th team beats the first team one night, it's not such a big deal. No game is a gimme." (After Chicago ran its record to 21-0-3 with a come-from-behind 3--2 victory over the Avalanche on March 6, King James himself took to Twitter to say, "Hey Chicago Blackhawks, u guys are AWESOME!! #streaking.")
Chicago lost for the first time last Friday, falling 6--2 in Colorado. The salary-cap-induced parity that prevails in professional sports these days is intended to stifle such streaks of excellence. Nevertheless, including a six-game run at the end of last season (3-0-3), the Blackhawks earned at least one point—i.e., did not lose a regular-season game in regulation—in 30 straight matches, second only to the 1979--80 Flyers, who went 25-0-10 from Oct. 14 to Jan. 6. At 21-2-3 after a 6--5 loss to the Oilers on Sunday, Chicago has earned 45 points in 26 games, six points clear of Anaheim.
Scoring alternately with flair and brute force, the Blackhawks have earned nine of their 11 wins on home ice by a single goal. "It's the most remarkable thing I've seen," says Stan Bowman's 79-year-old father, Scotty, a team senior adviser and the coach of nine Cup winners, including the 1978--79 Canadiens, whose 28-game point streak is the NHL's third longest. "Our teams in Montreal were powerhouse teams. We only lost eight games [in '76--77]. We only won two games of those 28 by one goal, so we didn't have the sweats [that the Blackhawks] do."
This streak was especially unlikely because of the compressed schedule, which figured to wear down teams and induce off nights. Chicago began the season with consecutive road games on consecutive days against the Kings and the Coyotes, who dismissed the Blackhawks from the playoffs last April. In fact, they played 10 of their first 12 games on the road, and they have already had four four-game weeks. After a 10-0-3 start, Chicago went on a franchise-record 11-game winning streak over the next 20 days. Says the senior Bowman, "We may never watch anything like it again."
As the Blackhawks' wins began to pile up, captain Jonathan Toews, whose mother hails from Sainte-Marie, Que., started to reserve part of his postgame interview time to answer questions from Francophone reporters following the team. Across the locker room, the hoard of scribes at Kane's cubicle grew bigger and bigger throughout the streak. Says center Andrew Shaw, whose locker is next to Kane's, "It takes me half an hour to get dressed."
The locals even burnished the streak with its own mythology. During overtime of a 4--3 victory over the visiting Blue Jackets on March 1, Toews finished an end-to-end dash with a gorgeous centering pass to defenseman Brent Seabrook for the game-winner. At no time during the play, from Toews's rush up the left boards to his needle-threading flip past two Columbus sticks, did the center appear to look at Seabrook. Word spread that Toews had found his defenseman by spotting his reflection in the glass. Toews is no embellisher. He is, rather, a polite but unrevealing interview subject. "No, actually I saw this big red jersey out of the corner of my eye before I got the puck," he says. "I just guessed he'd be there. It was a timing play, the kind of thing you work on in practice. We got lucky, that's all." That wasn't good enough for Sun-Times reporter (and former SI senior writer) Rick Telander, who asked Toews jokingly, "Can we stick with the legend instead of the truth?"
Toews was a boy captain when Chicago won its last Cup. Now he and Kane, both 24, are franchise anchors. But even with those two cornerstones, the Blackhawks faced drastic retooling after their championship. Ten players left the team in the 2010 off-season through cost-cutting trades and free agency, including such vital support players as defenseman Dustin Byfuglien (now with the Jets), who scored 11 goals in the run to the Cup, and forwards Andrew Ladd (also with Winnipeg) and Kris Versteeg (Panthers). "A lot of camaraderie and chemistry went out the door when those guys left," says Chicago coach Joel Quenneville. "You don't just get that back overnight."