In all honesty. I mean it.  As a lifelong Blackhawks fan, this past week has re-affirmed my fandom – not that it was ever in doubt – and showed me every reason why my commitment to the Indian has been justified and will continue for years to come.

This Blackhawks team was setup for disaster coming into the season.  After an incredible 2009/2010 run where a team that grew up in front of our eyes ended 49 years of championship draught for the organization, where was there room to improve?  The party that followed the parade last summer carried all the way into the pre-season, and as recently as last week Duncan Keith admitted that he wasn’t excited for this season to begin.  I know they’re professional athletes and get paid all this money, etc., but can you blame them?  Think of the year the majority of the team had in 2009/2010 – most were there as the Hawks found themselves the underdogs in the Western Conference Championship versus rival Detroit in the Spring of 2009, and emerged on the scene as serious contenders for the year to come (Marian Hossa and Tomas Kopecky both were on that Detroit team and played even further into the Summer of 2009 as they lost to the Penguins – both even played in the Stanley Cup Finals the summer before that as well [Hossa as a member of the Penguins]).

The Hawks came out of the gate in 2009 at full speed and took the league by storm.  By February Hossa, Kopecky, Kane, Toews, Keith, and Seabrook played in the Olympics, with the final four names all figuring prominently in the Gold Medal game that was the stuff of legends (Toews was named MVP of the tournament).  The team then re-convened and promptly went on their historic run to the Cup.  Toews won the Conn Smythe for best player in the playoffs, Duncan Keith won the Norris Trophy as the best defenseman in the league, and the accolades kept rolling in. 

While this was all going on management was faced with the task of breaking up the team they had worked so hard to build and that the city had fallen so hard for.  Tomes have been written about all of this but it’s important to remember that the team as constructed had built 3+ years of chemistry and understanding their roles, and all of that got pulled apart and left those who remained and those who were new to arrive wondering where they go from here. 

Despite a roster with a laundry list of top end talent, hockey is a 25 man game and if you’ve made the NHL it probably means you’ve been the best player and top scorer on your team for most of your upbringing.  Now guys like Viktor Stalberg and Bryan Bickell, who grew up being offensive forces, were being asked to grind out shifts and kill penalties as those are the roles the team had open.  The gelling on this process took longer than just leaving the boiling water with the Jell-o packet mixed in in the fridge overnight. 

Other than a well blogged about 9 game winning streak in February/March 2010, the team never was able to get its act together and continually crapped the bed every time they had a chance to separate themselves from the pack.  Sure there were injuries and slumps throughout the year but you can’t tell me a team with Toews, Kane, Hossa, Sharp, Bolland, Keith, Seabrook, and Campbell should be relying on a cast of AHL characters wearing Minnesota Wild jerseys to beat Dallas on the literal last game of the season to make the playoffs.  Well it happened and the writing was on the wall that this wasn’t going to be pretty.

The “Got-In-By-The-Skin-Of-Our-Teeth” Hawks drew the league’s best record holding Vancouver Canucks, who may have a bit of a chip on their shoulder as they had been ousted from the playoffs the previous two seasons at the hands of the good guys from Chicago.  The Canucks have been a well oiled machine all year and the Hawks were still figuring out who plays best with whom.  Not the ideal situation for playoff hockey.

The first three games went about as well as you might think.  The Canucks came out physical and knocked the Hawks all over the rink in Game 1 getting Luongo a shutout in the process.  The Hawks then tried to get tough and play physical in Game 2, but Vancouver switched tactics and played a fast, technically sound style that the Hawks again were not prepared for and were left grasping for straws.  By Game 3, I’m not sure the Hawks knew what to expect as embodied by Brent Seabrook getting blindsided by Raffi Torres behind his own net.  That hit jarred more than Seabrook’s medulla oblongata, it rattled the entire city of Chicago as our conquering heroes of the season before showed every sign of being mere mortals on their way to an early and disgraceful exit.  Fortunately, the hit also appeared to inject air on the fire below the Hawks that many (this writer included) had assumed had already been extinguished.

With Seabrook out, Dave Bolland returned from a 19 game absence due to his own head injury, and the team came alive.  Now whether it was just Bolland being re-inserted in the lineup, another fired up rant from Captain Serious (rumored), or just the law of the jungle, the Hawks came out flying in Game 4 winning7-2.  Bolland lit the lamp and the Semen Twins didn’t.  Sharp, Kane, and Keith found their way onto the score sheet as well.  Roberto Luongo found his way onto the bench after allowing his 6th goal.  At the very least it was a thank you to the fans in Chicago, one last reason to roar this year and a solid “we’ll get ‘em next year.”  At best, we may just have ourselves a series now because if we can win Game 5, and then Game 6 would be back in Chicago and…  Well, at least that was the logic around the water cooler, but at least it was a conversation being held about hockey again.

Game 5 means a trip back to Vancouver, the lowly Eight Seed got their token win at home (a lá the Pacers) but it’s time for the natural balance to take over once again.  Needless to say all the pundits saw the ensuing 5-0 shellacking coming… wait, what?  The Hawks were on the ‘5’ end of that score?  Corey Crawford, the kid who’s been in the organization for five years and couldn’t beat out Cristobal Huet last season, just pitched a shutout in Vancouver, in an elimination game, in the face of $10 million a year Luongo (who caught the end of the game from the bench yet again)?  Damn straight he did.  This is the team I love.  These are the worldbeaters that have a Stanley Cup to defend.  This is what playoff hockey is all about.

While one could argue – and I’m sure many Vancouverites have – that Games 4 and 5 were ‘off’ games for their team, no one would argue that they mailed in Game 6 as well.  Game 6 was good old fashioned rock’em sock’em hockey at its finest with both teams putting their best skate forward and the Hawks coming out victorious yet again – this time in overtime.  The cracks in Vancouver were beginning to show.  After Game 6 in Chicago – highlighted by Michael Frolik ripping Corey Schneider’s groin on a penalty shot – the Canucks were in a total mental freefall.  Their franchise goalie was a mess, their GM was making excuses and blaming the refs, their Coach was lying about his intentions to go with Luongo in Game 7 all along – we’re talking Japan level meltdowns and I was eating it up.

The Hawks were once again the team and the game in town.  While admittedly the Bulls had won both of my ‘Battle For My Fandom’ columns in convincing fashion earlier this year, the fact that they were closing out Indiana in Chicago on Tuesday night just served as the undercard to the main event on my TV.  I had friends texting me from across the country as the puck dropped at 9pm CST – most with stiff drinks in hand – as the Blackhawks attempted to achieve the impossible.  Over the course of a week they were going to get Alain Vignault fired, literally ruin Roberto Luongo’s career, force the Canucks to blow up everything they had built, and advance on in the greatest annual athletic tournament this side of European soccer’s Champions League. 

Alas, you know what happened Tuesday night.  Whether it was from my pre-emptive braggadocio on this site (despite my insistence hours early that I didn’t want to jinx them – in my defense I couldn’t help myself), Bryan Bickell admitting he could no longer play through the pain of a severed tendon in his wrist that he got in Game 2, or any other hex that may have been placed on the team, they just couldn’t get it done.  Jonathan Toews scored with under two minutes left while shorthanded to force overtime, and Corey Crawford quite literally did stand on his head on several occasions, but it just wasn’t enough.  

Sure I was disappointed – as I’m sure you were – but you’ve got to admit it was a fun ride.  The Hawks picked themselves up off the mat, when it would have been easiest to just write the series off to “it’s just not our year” or some other fun cliché, but they didn’t and I love them more for it.  Sure there’s room to improve next year but I feel a whole lot better about next season as I write this today than I did a week ago.  My faith in Toews’ leadership, Keith’s defense, Bolland’s peskiness, and Crawford’s future have all been bolstered.  Who knows, maybe with a longer summer the boys will have time to get into a proper workout routine and let injuries heal – things there just was no time for last year.  Stan and the boys in management now have more cap room and a better understanding of where the gaps are in the team chemistry and can fill the roster by choice rather than by default.  These past three games added fuel to the fire of a team and a fan base once more.  For that I thank the Blackhawks for giving their all as that’s all we can ask.