The Chicago Blackhawks season came to an end on Monday night in St Louis, with a Game 7 loss in their opening round series against the Blues. Now, we wait and see what else ended with it.
An era? A dynasty? Something more? Or maybe just a chapter in an ongoing story, one that can’t end with a Cup parade every time even if it’s often seemed to.
The NHL is a far different league than it was before the 2005 lockout that wiped out an entire season and ushered in a new set of rules, and that makes it hard to put what the Blackhawks have done in historical context. In decades past, an NHL dynasty meant an unstoppable force, like the great Canadiens teams of the 50s and 70s. It was Al Arbour’s Islanders winning four Cups and an unthinkable 19 straight playoff series. It was the Gretzky-led Oilers powerhouse that followed them, one that won four titles in five years and only lost when it scored into its own net.
The Hawks, by comparison, have never even repeated as champions. They’ve won Cups in 2010, 2013 and 2015, making them the only team to win three titles in the post-2005 salary cap era. But they’ve also lost in the first-round three times since that first championship. Is that really a dynasty?
Well, yeah. In today’s NHL, it is. Because today’s NHL is designed to make it all-but impossible for the best teams to stay on top. There’s a hard salary cap in place, one that forces teams to stay under a preset budget. A good team can keep its core – the four or five players who define its identity – but they’ll become increasingly expensive, squeezing out the supporting cast that’s so crucial. Like a crab getting yanked back into the bucket, the NHL’s best teams are relentlessly pulled back to the pack. The system has resulted in an age of unprecedented parity and competitive balance, one that the league relentlessly promotes as a good thing.
Despite that, the Blackhawks have been able to keep winning. Not all the time, like teams could in the old days, but more than anyone else in the league could manage. Since emerging as a contender in 2009, Chicago have won 76 playoff games; the next best team have won just 54. They’ve got three Cups, while only one other team has even won two in the cap era. Hockey fans don’t argue about the era’s best team anymore, because there’s really no argument to be had. It’s the Blackhawks by a landslide.
And yet there they were on Monday, sent home in the first round by a longtime rival with a reputation for postseason failure. The title defense was over before it even really began.
So what happened? And more importantly, what happens next?