Steven Stamkos had a pair of chances, ringing iron over the glove of Corey Crawford in the first period and having the door slammed shut on a breakaway by Crawford's right pad in the opening minutes of the second. Anton Stralman had the puck hop his stick while left all alone and facing a yawning cage in the first period. With those chances coming up empty, Duncan Keith and Patrick Kane's conversions in the second and third periods were all the hosts needed to send the Madhouse on Madison to a delirium not experienced in over seven decades as the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup for the third time since 2010 and the sixth time in franchise history on Monday night at the United Center.
So here we are, in the greatest age of an 88 year old franchise. Doubling the amount of championships the Blackhawks club won from their founding in 1926-27 through the first 48 years in the span of just six years from 2009-10 to 14-15, Chicago has officially assumed the mantle of being the greatest franchise in the the NHL since the wipeout lockout of 05-06. In a league that has seen Detroit claim the Cup four times from 1997-2008 and New Jersey three times from 1995-2003, the stage had long been set for someone else to assume the mantle of the NHL's standard bearer.
These Blackhawks entered the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs as a much talked about dark horse, opening on the road against the surprising second-seeded Nashville Predators in the first round of the playoffs. Despite early goaltending struggles they emerged from a six game series against the Predators to sweep the Minnesota Wild in the Central Division Playoff Final. Then it took seven games, but the Windy City side emerged from the Western Conference Final for the third time in five Conference Final appearances over seven seasons to compete for and ultimately win the Stanley Cup in six games.
While fans on the other side of Lake Michigan will argue that the Red Wings of 1995-2002 are better, and rightly so having won the Cup three times (1997, 98, 2002) while being a more regular playoff winner, these Blackhawks have picked up the mantle of the top franchise for the league with their success over the last seven years. Detroit won 19 series in that eight year stretch, while Chicago has won 16 series and claimed the Cup three times (2010, 2013, 2015) over their seven year run. Yet while Detroit had the benefit of being able to open the not-so Little Caesars pizza-built coffers of Mike Illitch to sign the likes of Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, and Dominik Hasek for 2002, these Blackhawks have been built and rebuilt in a salary cap era by Stan and Scotty Bowman.
Despite the likes of Dustin Byfuglien, Antti Niemi, and Dave Bolland moving on from the initial 2010 title team, the Hawks have been able to reload thanks to shrewd drafting (Brandon Saad, Teuvo Teravainen), savvy free agent signings (Brad Richards) and trading (Andrew Desjardins, Antoine Vermette and reacquiring Kris Versteeg) to make sure the arsenal has remained full enough to compete. That hill will become steeper thanks to the $10.5 mil. contracts both 'winner' captain Jonathan Toews and Kane will carry next season, but it would be foolhardy to think that Chicago won't still be lurking as at the least a periphery contender the next few seasons.
For all the legitimate points about the future of the Blackhawks, it's very much worth recognizing their performance not only this season but over the past six. Los Angeles may have claimed the Cup twice in four years, but since 2002 they've won 10 playoff series with all of the wins coming in their past four seasons. Anaheim has won 13 playoff series including the first ever Stanley Cup claimed for the state of California in '07 since '03. With the win last night, the Blackhawks have cemented themselves as the best of the post wipeout lockout era.
For what it's worth for the Ducks, they can still claim themselves as the best of the 90's expansion classes having won their division four times, the conference twice and the Stanley Cup once. Tampa Bay has only won the Southeast Division twice despite making the Stanley Cup Final twice and winning once, while the San Jose Sharks have won the division six times but have yet to see their side even make the Stanley Cup Final.
The NHL has thirsted for years for a measuring stick on par with the Red Wings of the late 90's-early 00's, the Oilers of the mid/late 80's-early 90's, and Islanders of the early 80's. For as difficult as the modern NHL has comported itself for dynasty creation, the Blackhawks have emerged for the first time in their history as the standard bearer for the whole of the league. While statues of Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita currently skate in perpetuity outside of United Center, as soon as Toews and Kane hang their skates up they will doubtlessly join in the bronze party on West Madison Street.
Ducks fans can take a modicum of comfort in the fact that Blackhawk players and coaches specifically named Anaheim as the most difficult playoff series that they faced, yet it has a hollow quality seeing a franchise ascend to the point of being the best of their era despite facing the best shot the Ducks had to offer in the Western Final. These are truly the greatest Chicago Blackhawks, and henceforth will be the stick by which all other Stanley Cup champions will be measured.
For the Ducks, it's the second year in a row they've been dispatched by the eventual Stanley Cup champion. If that isn't maddeningly motivational in itself, it's hard to imagine what else could be. 2015 is the year of the ascension of the Blackhawks as NHL standard bearers, while 2016 seemingly must be the year of the Ducks.