Here’s the second installment of our 10-week Throwback Thursday series, counting down to the Hawks’ home opener on Thursday, October 5. Up next: the 2008-09 season and Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals.
One of the best things you can experience as a sports fan is watching your favorite team go from up-and-coming to legitimate title contender, that initial season when a team asserts itself among the league’s elite is sheer bliss for fans. There’s no specific bar to be cleared, no burden of expectations to be met. The Nashville Predators’ fans got to enjoy that ride last season.
For the Hawks, that season was in 2008-09. After narrowly missing the playoffs the year before, Chicago erupted for a 104-point regular season and won its first playoff series against Calgary in just six games. The second-round opponents for the Hawks were the Vancouver Canucks.
It feels like ancient history these days, but remember how much fun it was to hate Vancouver? So many players worthy of disdain. Kevin Bieksa. Shane O’Brien. Alex Burrows. Ryan “no human can withstand that many hits” Kesler. A roster so loaded with goons that you expected the coach to be Wolf Stansson. And the only thing more insufferable than their on-ice antics were the looks on their faces when they were doing them. I don’t think there’s been another team, in any sport, that’s elicited so much hate from me. I almost miss that team. Let’s all take a moment and remember all the Stanley Cups they w— okay, that was great .
Vancouver started the series by winning Game 1.
Chicago swung the series in Game 2, reeling off five straight goals after falling behind 2-0 early. A win in that game brought the series back to Chicago tied at one. After Vancouver won Game 3, Andrew Ladd redirected a Dave Bolland shot from the boards for an overtime game-winner in Game 4, sending the series back to Vancouver for Game 5 in a 2-2 deadlock.
The pivotal fifth game started off well for the Hawks, with Dustin Byfuglien burying a rebound past Roberto Luongo for an early 1-0 Hawks lead. Kesler responded about two minutes later with a power play goal, and the first period ended tied at one. Mats Sundin put Vancouver ahead 2-1 in the second before Byfuglien added his second of the night, sending the teams to the second intermission tied again.
The third period was a back-and-forth affair for the first 13 minutes, with Luongo for Vancouver and Nikolai Khabibulin for Chicago trading spectacular saves. Then, with just under seven minutes remaining, a stupid, pointless penalty taken by Bieksa (a popular phrase in the near decade since) put the Hawks on the power play.
Then: Dave Bolland happened.
Well, it was first a brilliant play by Patrick Kane to keep the puck from exiting the zone after Hawks had sustained pressure for over one minute. Duncan Keith point shot ricocheted over to Kane on the right side. Number 88 corralled the puck and skated right at a stick-less Willie Mitchell. Luongo came out to challenge. Kane fired across the ice to a wide open Bolland. The net was wide open.
Bolland didn’t miss.
You can hear the excitement in Pat Foley’s voice as he makes the call. This was a young Blackhawks team realizing its potential against what was supposed to be a superior opponent. Vancouver tried to run Chicago out of the stadium each night, taking an extra swing/slash/punch at whatever Hawk was closest when the whistle blew. But the Hawks never wilted under the pressure and kept lighting the Canucks up on the scoreboard. This late power play that decided the game was the result of a pointless Vancouver penalty. It epitomized the series and the entire Blackhawks/Canucks rivalry.
Martin Havlat would add an empty-net goal with a minute left to put the game away for good (after the Hawks salted two minutes away thanks to yet another dumb Vancouver penalty, this one by Kesler). Chicago ended the series in Game 6 with a 7-5 win back at the United Center.
What a game that was. What a series that was. What a season that was.
But there was even more fun to be had in the following season.