What a great end to a great playoffs. As a Leafs fan, I watched the playoffs without a preferred team, but rather with a hope that I could watch some great players make some magic in the clutch.
Coming into the playoffs, I was unsure at how this Blackhawks team would deal with the pressure of no longer being the upstart youngsters, but rather legitimate contenders. Turns out it really only took one uneasy game vs. Nashville for this team to remember exactly what their mission was when they started out last October.
There are a lot of players I like, and as an impartial observer, this final was more about which players I wanted to see win the Cup. in 2007 I really wanted Teemu to finally get one, and for the Niedermayer brothers to share one. In 2008 I thought Lidstrom, Datsyuk, and Zetterberg deserved to win one by themselves and emerge as the new generation of Red Wings. And in 2009 it was all about the Penguins - Crosby establishing his place as truly elite, Jordan Staal getting a ring, Fleury overcoming his World Jr failure, and Kris Letang sharing some glory above with the gone-too-soon Luc Bourdon.
This year was tough, because I had favourites on both sides. And even though I really hate the Flyers, there were too many stories to be entirely with the Hawks. Briere has had that little-engine-that-could aura since his Sabres days. Mike Richards is almost everything you want in a hockey player. Claude Giroux has vaulted himself among the frontline of the Flyers' offense. Simon Gagne seemed to be reborn in the Boston series. And even Mr Asshole himself - C. Pronger - you can't deny his impact on the maturity and compete level of the whole Flyers team.
But the Hawks are just something special. The Original Six team. The long-suffering fanbase. The lean years without talent at the hands of an out-of-touch owner. The history. The close calls. The wait. And the chance at new glory. This is a struggle and a kinship I understand.
First, how can you not like the guys on your team? From top to bottom, the roster is full of quality people. You don't have any clowns like Matt Cooke or Dan Carcillo or Maxim Lapierre doing stupid things on/off the ice. They simply would not stand for it. In fact, the only minor blemishes in the whole organization are what happened with the Savard firing (who was kept on as a team ambassador anyway) and the railroading of Dale Tallon, who sadly will miss out on sharing the Cup glory with the rest of his Hawks yet deserves as much praise as anyone for this championship.
From Keith & Seabrook becoming (Canadian) national heroes at the Olympics to the explosive emergence of Byfuglien as a power-forward to be reckoned with, this team was full of reasons to get behind the Blackhawks. I love the character of guys like Sharp and Burish, and the meat&potatoes feel of the Ladds, Versteegs, and Brouwers. I never understood the vilification of Soupy for signing a contract that was offered to him, and he's been one of the guys I've kept an eye out for ever since he used to run things in Buffalo along with Briere. And how can you root against Hossa? He has too much talent/drive/thoroughbred in him to carry ill-will. He was one save and half a second from keeping the Penguins in it in 2008. And yes, the cynic in all of us was a little smug when he lost to the team who he had deserted the summer prior (which I always blamed on Therrien being re-signed anyway). But I don't think anyone wanted to give Hossa the crown of thorns in being a 3-time runner up.
The real heart of this win, and what I like most about this team, centres around two guys: Patrick Timothy Kane Jr. and Jonathan Bryan Toews. Two young guns that have single-handedly (double-handedly?) revived the Blackhawk franchise with their innate skill and leadership by example. Ever since their rookie seasons, they've seemed to have that bond of destiny about them, in a way that evoked the dynamic duos of many past teams. And personally -- sorry Hawks fans -- they've always reminded me of my favourite player pair growing up: Yzerman and Fedorov. You have one guy with so much skill, speed, and flash, and another guy with the will and ability to take an entire team on his back and say "I'm going to drag you bastards to the finish line, and by God you better be ready to cross it with me."
Since he elevated his game in the shootout World Jr win against Team USA, and was crowned as something special (and often projected to be the "next" Stevie Y.) I have always been a fan of Toews in particular. His pre-debut injury had me worried for a nanosecond, but with that first goal against the Sharks leading into a 10-game point streak to start his career and then that highlight reel goal against Colorado, I knew this guy would be the real deal.
After top forward honours at the Olympics, many people claimed that the gold medal was the emphatic stamp on Toews' coming-out party. But for those of us who've been paying attention, Captain Serious has been amazing all along.