Heading into Game 6 of the Western Conference final last night, the Anaheim Ducks held a 3-2 series lead, making it impossible not to watch the game without thinking that this might be the end of the Blackhawks.
Not the end of the Blackhawks’ 2015 season, mind you. That wasn’t the source of the drama. It was the realization that had the Ducks eliminated Chicago on Wednesday, they would be finishing off the Hawks for years to come. Finishing off the team that has spent the past seven years winning two Cups, going to five conference finals, and generally being just about the closest thing the league has seen to a dynasty in the salary-cap era.
Those Blackhawks are a brilliantly constructed team, but their pending cap crunch has been an inescapable subplot to their postseason. The question, never quite front and center but always just under the surface, has followed them all spring: Is this finally their last run? Last night, with the team facing elimination for the first time this year, everything that happened carried the weighty possibility that we were seeing something special for the last time.
You thought it when Hawks forward Brandon Saad finally scored the opener, midway through the second period after a lackluster first in which Chicago was outshot and largely outplayed. A harmless-looking play suddenly turned into a breakaway, and Saad snapped one past Frederik Andersen between the legs. The United Center erupted, Saad was mobbed by teammates, and you wondered how the heck the Blackhawks are supposed to get this guy signed when he hits restricted free agency this summer.
You thought it again when Marian Hossa made it 2-0 just three minutes later, and you wondered just how much his heavily front-loaded contract, which stretches until he’ll be 42 years old, will handcuff this team in the years to come.
You thought it when Patrick Kane trickled a shot past Andersen after a beautiful individual effort, which I am linking to here not so much for your benefit but just in case Matt Beleskey is still trying to figure out where Kane went. That one came just two minutes after Hossa’s goal, made it 3-0 for Chicago, and reminded you that both Kane and Hawks captain Jonathan Toews have new deals kicking in this summer, ones that give them the league’s two highest individual cap hits. They’re fair deals, and other stars will catch up and pass them soon enough, but, man, will they eat a big chunk of cap space.
You thought it as Duncan Keith was putting up three assists while logging 28:35 and saving goals in his own end, and you looked at the eight years left on his deal and … well, and you thought Duncan Keith is a beast. Sorry, I can stretch this whole concept only so far. Keith’s deal will look bad someday, but last night he was a bargain at any price.
But you had to keep thinking about the future of these Hawks, whether you wanted to or not. Brent Seabrook played his usual solid game on the second pairing; how do you get him the extension he’s eligible for this summer? Andrew Shaw scored the insurance goal to make it 4-2; he should be in for a nice raise after next season too. Corey Crawford made 30 saves for the win; is it completely crazy to think that maybe he’s the guy they should trade?
You wouldn’t think this way about most teams. Most teams make the playoffs, eventually lose, and go home, and nobody really offers up much sympathy because that’s just how the playoffs work for the also-rans. And you certainly wouldn’t think it about the Ducks, seemingly poised to be back here next year and beyond because of their young talent and solid cap situation.
But the Blackhawks, yeah, you can’t really escape it. Hell, you even had to think it during the pregame pump-up video that welcomed them to the ice. It’s brilliant, a chill-inducing production that juxtaposes the players from the current roster with the stars of the franchise’s past, and it’s a reminder of just how long this team went without a championship. Fans in Chicago waited 49 years for a Stanley Cup, many of those seasons agonizingly ordinary, some utterly without hope. Nobody ever really deserves a dynasty, but these guys at least come close. And they know as well as anyone that once something slips away, it can take a very long time to get it back.
It wasn’t always like this. For decades, more than any other pro sports league, the NHL was a league of dynasties. You had the Maple Leafs of the early ’60s, the Oilers and Islanders of the ’80s, and the Canadiens of, well, just about every other era. That had faded by the first decade of the Gary Bettman era, but teams like the Red Wings, Avalanche, and Devils still dominated, combining to win eight of nine Cups from 1995 to 2003.
The 2005 lockout changed that. In the decade since, there’s yet to have been so much as a repeat champion, and only a handful of teams have been able to put together more than a few seasons as top-tier contenders. The salary cap is the biggest and most obvious reason, although revenue-sharing and liberalized free agency help too. Even beyond the rule changes, the gap between the league’s smart teams and the patsies — which used to be huge — has been narrowing for years. With so much information available to anyone interested enough to look for it, the margins for competitive advantage have grown smaller and smaller.