In two desperate, stunning and unforgettable strikes, the season that nearly never was ended with a series that will live forever. Bryan Bickell and Dave Bolland scored goals 17 seconds apart, the last with 59 seconds to play, to lift the Blackhawks to a thrilling six-game triumph over the game and equally deserving Bruins. In the center of the ice after the final horn sounded, Chicago captain Jonathan Toews mouthed the words, "I can't believe this," to teammate Corey Crawford. The goalie's answer, give or take a forgivable unprintable, was: "Never, no way."
The 2013 Stanley Cup finals was a triumph not just for Chicago. Five months ago, as the NHL crawled out of the rubble of its third lockout in two decades, nobody—not the owners, not the players and certainly not commissioner Gary Bettman or union chief Donald Fehr—could have drawn up anything as perfect as this series, a marquee matchup between two Original Six franchises that turned out to be one of the most competitive and compelling finals in recent memory. In six games and more than 435 minutes of hockey, including an exhausting triple-overtime opener in Chicago, neither team ever had more than a two-goal lead. Both the Bruins and the Blackhawks had chances to go up two games by Game 4 but blew them with losses in overtime on home ice. The cuticle-shredding drama and fierce pace of play all added up to exactly what the NHL needed in a year that began with the hockey world facing the possibility of a season lost to a labor stoppage: a reason to talk about the game based on what happened on the ice, not off of it.
In this finals, supporting players became headliners: Blackhawks third-line center Andrew Shaw, who was passed over in both the 2009 and '10 drafts, scored the winner in Game 1; unheralded Bruins winger Daniel Paille celebrated his graduation from the fourth line to the third by netting winners in Games 2 and 3. Headliners became casualties: Chicago winger Marian Hossa, tied for the team lead in playoff scoring before Game 3, was scratched for that contest (after skating in warmups) with what the team would only describe as an upper-body injury; Toews sat on the bench for the entire third period of Game 5 after taking a shot to the head from Boston defenseman Johnny Boychuk; and Bergeron, the Bruins' brilliant two-way center, left the same game in an ambulance after trying to play through what was reportedly a spleen injury. He and Toews were both back on the ice for Game 6.
The action was so relentless—and the casualties were piling up so fast—that after Game 2, Boston winger Jaromir Jagr, 41, joked that he was becoming concerned for the fans. "If you have a bad heart, you might get a heart attack," Jagr warned. "For young people it's pretty exciting to watch. Old people, don't watch it."
At least by NHL standards, plenty of fans did watch, though. Ratings on NBC and the NBC Sports Network were robust: the games averaged 5.4 million viewers per game, the best in nearly 20 years. "It's only fitting," said Blackhawks winger Patrick Sharp after Game 4, "that two of the oldest teams would give people a series for the history books."
For nearly two weeks, the Blackhawks and the Bruins traded haymakers like heavyweight fighters and tactical adjustments like chess masters. In a 2--1 overtime victory in Game 2, Boston coach Claude Julien used a rope-a-dope strategy, letting the Blackhawks punch themselves out early—Chicago bolted to a 23--6 advantage in shots on goal—before intensifying his team's forecheck and turning the neutral zone into rush hour on the Mass Pike. The congestion took away the stretch passes that highly skilled Chicago likes to use to create space for its speedy forwards.
Chicago made several changes after Boston ground out another workmanlike 2--0 win in Game 3. The Blackhawks were badly beaten 40--16 on face-offs (Bergeron, who until his injury was making a strong case for the Conn Smythe Trophy, won an astonishing 24 of 28), so in Game 4, Chicago coach Joel Quenneville had his wingers cut hard toward the dots to skew the odds on 50-50 pucks. Over the next three games, Chicago and the Bruins were exactly even on draws, 99--99.
Early in the series Chicago seemed spooked by Boston's aggressive defensemen, particularly the 6'9" Chara. The Blackhawks were reluctant to work the puck behind the Bruins' punishing defense. Only after the Blackhawks made the bruising commitment to engage the Bruins' defense behind the goal line (to win puck battles) and in front of Rask (to establish screens) were they able to turn the tide of the series. Hitting Chara is a bit like running head-on into a U-Haul, but the cumulative tenderization of the Boston captain finally won some benefits. Chicago took Game 4 6--5; Chara, who entered the series +12 in the playoffs, was on the ice for five of the Blackhawks' goals. In Chicago's 3--1 win in Game 5, Chara was on the ice for all three. "At times in the first couple of games we were giving him a little bit too much respect by trying to keep the puck away from him," Toews said before Game 4. "He's not a guy that we should be afraid of. We should go at him.... We can expose him."
Another Quenneville adjustment in Game 4 turned out to be the most important move of the series. Down two games to one, he reunited the high-powered line of Toews and wingers Bickell and Patrick Kane. Quenneville had used the line intermittently during the season and went to it to help his team climb out of a 3--1 series hole against the Red Wings in the Western Conference semifinals.
Kane's marksmanship, Toews's playmaking skills and defensive acumen, and Bickell's power game are a natural fit, but Quenneville usually prefers to spread his assets to different lines. The rejiggering paid off almost immediately: Toews and Kane, who would be named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoffs MVP, scored just 2:08 apart to give Chicago a 3--1 lead in the second period of a frenetic game in which the offensive wizardry was augmented by goaltending ineptitude.