Cross Checks: Stanley Cup Finals
"I have nowhere to go. No hurry now," Girardi said. "Just kept it on. No reason. I just -- just hanging onto it, I guess. Hanging onto the last moments here."
There were so many poignant moments to remember for the New York Rangers throughout what was a remarkable postseason run. So much to be proud of, yet all those fond memories were difficult to summon in the wake of the team’s season-ending loss to the Los Angeles Kings in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals on Friday night.
But not now.
"There will be. Not tonight, but there will be," said veteran Brad Richards, the Rangers’ de facto captain. "Tonight’s not a night to reminisce, but there will be a time this summer when you look back at what an amazing run it was. Has to be amazing to get this far. Things have to come together. No one will ever know, except for us, how fun it was and how we came together. You lose three overtime games in the final. It’s hard to explain."
It was already tough for the Rangers to articulate, to put into words just how exactly they were feeling physically, mentally and emotionally after a beautifully chaotic and drama-filled double-overtime game that ended with Alec Martinez’s game winner.
Some tried to explain what it was like.
"Empty," said defenseman Anton Stralman, who had a particularly strong postseason. "Emptiness, I think."
Marc Staal, as steady as any player in that room, both on or off the ice, made no effort to conceal his anguish.
"It’s the worst feeling you can have as a hockey player," said Staal, which is not hollow hyperbole coming from a player who has suffered through a pair of frightening, career-threatening injuries in recent years.
Maybe the worst part for all of those involved is that the group will never again get a chance with the team constituted as it currently stands. Richards has likely played his last game as a Ranger, with a potential buyout looming. Rick Nash, with another disappointing postseason performance, might not be long for Broadway. The team has six impending unrestricted free agents and several key restricted free agents to get under contract as well.
It will not be the same group of players come training camp this fall.
"Who knows if we’re going to have another crack at this? We might not get another crack at this opportunity," Girardi said, almost unbelieving. "That’s why it hurts, I think, that much more."
It will also sting, for some time, for the Rangers to look back on a series that went five games but was riddled with squandered leads, missed opportunities and some odd outcomes.
The Rangers played better in the games they lost than in their sole victory in Game 4. The Kings erased leads, rallied back, showed resilience. The Rangers never even really felt like they settled into their game. They dropped the first three games and seemed shell-shocked by their position.
"It felt like we closed our eyes and opened them and we were down three-nothing [in the series]," Staal said.
But the Rangers salvaged pride in Game 4, avoiding a sweep on home ice at Madison Square Garden, and they should have left the handshake line with their heads held high as well.
They left every ounce of effort on that Staples Center ice Friday night in what was maybe the most riveting stretch of playoff hockey this spring, maybe ever. There was not a single moment to mentally adjust, no time to take a deep breath. Just end-to-end, do-or-die hockey in its purest form. It was wildly entertaining, captivating and absolutely mesmerizing.
Both teams had their chances, great chances, to end the game in each overtime period. There was Ryan McDonagh’s shot off the post and Tyler Toffoli’s crossbar shot in the first period. There was Nash’s shot directed at an open net, foiled only by a sliver of shaft of Kings defenseman Slava Voynov’s stick in the next. Lundqvist was superb the whole way through, denying every Grade-A chance that passed his crease for his second outing of 40 saves or more, but it was just one juicy rebound surrendered that ended up in the back of their net.
Martinez buried the chance, a play that seemed to unfold in slow motion, if only because it signaled the end to a game that many hoped would just keep going. It was that good.
Coach Alain Vigneault, talking to just a smattering of reporters with the muffled sounds of victory music lingering in the background, lauded his club for its heart.
"You go into this hoping you don’t regret anything," Vigneault said. "We put it out there. We gave our best shot, our best effort. Three games here all went to OT. What can I say?"
There was not much to say, after all. But there will be time to think and reflect.
Defenseman John Moore, finally showered and dressed in his suit, paused on his way out of the dressing room. There was a television monitor in the barren hallway, and he took a brief glance at the Kings celebrating their Stanley Cup win with friends and family on the ice.
He looked away and kept walking.
It’s too painful in the immediate aftermath, but they will remember this run -- the team’s first Stanley Cup appearance in 20 years.
It was special, even in defeat.
"It’s definitely worth it. Worth every second, these two months," Richards said. "Right now, you’re just sort of speechless."
The Los Angeles Kings will be able to hoist it with a victory in Game 4.
“I think it’s fair to say anybody who is not thinking about that going into the next game is not being honest,” Kings captain Dustin Brown said Tuesday. “At the same time, we’ve had the ability not to look too far ahead.
No team has completed a Stanley Cup finals sweep since 1998.
“Everyone’s talking about a 3-0 lead, but you need four,” center Jarret Stoll told reporters Wednesday. "That’s what it’s all about and it’s always the hardest to get, so we gotta make sure we’re ready to go tonight.
“Guys are in a good place. Everybody’s confident. We just gotta make sure we’re playing our game, our style, our way. We gotta play a good game to beat these guys. They’re gonna have their best game tonight, and we have to have ours to be in it and go where we wanna go.”
The Kings, who became the fourth team in NHL history to overcome a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series in the first round against the San Jose Sharks, want to eliminate the Rangers on Wednesday night.
“You don’t want to give them any confidence whatsoever,” defenseman Willie Mitchell said.
The Kings have plenty of Conn Smythe candidates, including center Anze Kopitar (5 goals, 21 assists in the playoffs), center Jeff Carter (10-14), right winger Justin Williams (8-16), right winger Marian Gaborik (13-8) and defenseman Drew Doughty (5-12).
“That’s an award that a lot of NHLers obviously aspire to have,” Williams said Tuesday. “But at the same time, when you’re presented with it, I think a lot of guys just want to put it aside and look to the big jug. That’s pretty much how I can explain it.
“To be even mentioned with these big guys in that conversation is awesome. But, hey, the big one is what matters. God, I want to taste it again.”
NEW YORK -- Maybe it was to serve as a reminder of what they are still playing for heading into Game 4. Maybe it was simply an oversight, a function of a bleary-eyed staff misplacing a rug in the aftermath of yet another demoralizing loss.
The New York Rangers’ logo was left uncovered Tuesday, spanning a wide swath of their immaculate dressing room floor.
And when people began trampling over the pristine patch of carpet -- a forbidden act among hockey purists -- there wasn’t even a forceful, threatening warning to stay off (this is the norm), just one respectful plea.
Is this the way the Rangers will go out? Without putting up a fight?
Sure, players talked about the belief that remains, the adversity already vanquished in what has been an emotional spring. But platitudes and clichés aside, it wasn’t hard to discern how the Rangers were feeling.
It was evident on their faces, their measured words, their slightly slumping shoulders. Despondent. Sullen. Defeated.
“I’m not going to lie to you,” de facto captain Brad Richards said. “It’s pretty much impossible to be upbeat.”
Richards was only saying what was abundantly clear. The sense of regret, frustration, anger even, was hanging thick in the air Tuesday. The team is tired, frustrated and staring at a daunting task ahead. They are in no mood for positivity and they will make no apologies about that.
“We’re down 3-0. We’re all lacking sleep. This is tough,” said an agitated coach Alain Vigneault. “Excuse us if today we’re not real cheery. But tomorrow, I can tell you we’re going to show up.”
No griping about puck luck or bad bounces. No excuses, period. Henrik Lundqvist has to play lights-out. Rick Nash has to finish. Richards has to lead, not just off the ice, but on it as well.
The Rangers will have to show up and more Wednesday against a Kings team waiting and willing to pounce, ready to shove their second Stanley Cup championship in three years down the Blueshirts' throats. No doubt the Kings can sense the fragility in the opposing dressing room. They can understand it, too, considering seven weeks ago the Kings were in the same position, trailing the San Jose Sharks 3-0 in their first-round series.
So they will show no mercy to the battered Blueshirts, and the Rangers have to be similarly unwilling to budge.
“We don’t want to end our season losing a game at home and give the Stanley Cup to their team,” defenseman Marc Staal said. “It’s not going to happen that way.”
The Rangers will have to remember that logo, what it means and what it represents, when they don the sweater in Game 4 and try to avoid a sweep at the Kings' hands on home ice. No matter how surprising and successful this run has been for the team, a sweep carries both stigma and shame. It would cast a dark shadow over what has otherwise been a sensational, inspiring postseason.
Now, it must come down to nothing more than pride. Pride in the logo, pride in their performance, pride in one another.
“We definitely don’t want to get swept in the Stanley Cup finals, and we don’t want to lose in front of our home fans, either,” said defenseman Dan Girardi. “That’s not the way we want to go out.”
LOS ANGELES -- Brian Boyle did not hold back in the wake of the New York Rangers’ 5-4 double-overtime loss to the Los Angeles Kings in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals Saturday night, lashing out at the notion that the Rangers are underdogs in a series that is now 2-0 in favor of L.A. with the series shifting back to New York.
“I don’t give a s--- about underdogs. That’s ridiculous. Give me a break,” the rugged fourth-line forward said after the game, seething. “We’re not. We’re here, too. We’re a good team. And we can’t take any solace [in having played two close games], because we lost.”
Though the Kings entered the finals as heavy favorites, champions of what many feel to be a superior Western Conference, they have not held a lead for a single moment throughout the first two games of the series. And yet they lead 2-0 heading into Game 3 at Madison Square Garden on Monday night.
The Rangers didn’t make it this far to simply feel satisfied with being there for the spectacle of it all. They harbor the belief that they can compete with the big, physical Kings, and the first two games have shown just that. The Rangers have dominated stretches of play, building 2-0 leads in consecutive games, though their inability to close out their opponent has them in a daunting hole as they head back to the East Coast to defend home ice.
“We came here to win games. It doesn’t matter how the hell we do it, we have to win the game,” Boyle said. “If you don’t win the game, you didn’t do what you came to do, and that’s the worst feeling there is.”
Unlike Game 1, in which the Rangers unraveled after the Kings erased a two-goal deficit, the Blueshirts played a hard, purposeful hockey game Saturday night. Mats Zuccarello was buzzing, Rick Nash played with passion and physicality. Chris Kreider had a pair of glorious chances in overtime.
Still, they have nothing to show for it.
Part of that is a testament to the plucky Kings, who have outlasted their opponents in three consecutive seven-game series en route to their second Stanley Cup finals appearance in three years. The Kings have experience in abundance when it comes to this time of year. That has shown in their resolve.
Rallying to recover from deficits of 2-0, 3-1 and 4-2, the Kings became the first team in NHL history to win three straight playoff games when trailing by two goals.
“They've been in three Game 7s and come out on top. They were Stanley Cup champions a couple years ago. They know what it takes to win,” defenseman Dan Girardi said after the game. “They're getting those good bounces, those good plays in front. We're just going to have to find a way to, when we have the lead, to hold on to it, especially against a team like this. We know they're going to be coming. They have all that experience over there, and we need to be ready for that.”
Now, it’s up to the Rangers to be the comeback kids. They made a stunning turnaround in their second-round series to surmount a 3-1 series deficit and knock off the favored Pittsburgh Penguins. Can they forget the past two games and muster that magic again?
“You don't have a choice,” goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said. “You have to move on.”
Marquee matchup: Rangers coach Alain Vigneault called the Kings the best opponent the Rangers have faced thus far, and it was evident Wednesday night that they have earned that top billing. Despite a sloppy opening frame, in which they were reckless with the puck and fell behind 2-0, the Kings recovered in the final 40 minutes, exploiting their speed, size and skill to rally for the victory. The Kings will certainly put a point of emphasis on limiting turnovers in Game 2, while the Rangers need to step up their play in pretty much every facet. In fact, Vigneault called out his team in the wake of Wednesday’s loss and challenged them to bring their "A" game Saturday night. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who made 40 saves even though he was saddled with the loss, put his best on display in Game 1. Will his teammates heed that message and follow suit in Game 2?
Robyn returns: Veteran defenseman Robyn Regehr, who has missed more than a month sitting out with a knee injury, is expected to return to the lineup for the Kings on Saturday night. The 34-year-old blueliner, who suffered the injury during the team’s second-round series against the Anaheim Ducks, was medically cleared to play before Game 1, but Kings coach Darryl Sutter erred on the side of caution in reinserting him into the lineup. Regehr told reporters Friday he feels ready to play, but that it will be a coach’s decision.
Back from ban: With Regehr returning to reinforce the Kings' blue line, 23-year-old defenseman John Moore is expected to draw back into the Rangers' lineup after serving a two-game suspension for his hit on Dale Weise in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Montreal Canadiens. Moore had a tough time watching the last pair of games from the press box and said he is "pumped" for the chance to play in the finals, a dream he has harbored since he was a young kid. Speaking of youngsters, 21-year-old J.T. Miller, who suffered a shoulder injury in Game 3 against the Habs, is now available should Vigneault choose to use him, though no immediate lineup changes at forward are anticipated for Game 2.
LOS ANGELES -- A lot of time has been devoted to dissecting how defenseman Dan Girardi felt in the wake of the New York Rangers’ overtime loss to the Los Angeles Kings in Game 1: He was devastated, obviously, because of his costly mistake that led to Justin Williams’ game-winning goal.
But there was someone else on his team feeling pretty awful himself, and for an entirely different reason.
Serving the last game of his two-game suspension for his hit against Montreal Canadiens forward Dale Weise in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, defenseman John Moore had to witness his team drop the series opener while feeling completely helpless.
“It was tough to watch up there. It was really hard,” Moore said after the Rangers’ practice Friday at Staples Center. “We had our chances. Unfortunately, the bounces went the other way, but we were right there. It could’ve gone either way.”
Moore practiced with partner Kevin Klein on the third defensive pairing Friday, with depth defenseman Raphael Diaz skating again with regular scratch Justin Falk. Both are pretty good signs that Moore will jump right back into his regular spot.
“I’m sure [the nerves are] going to be bumping right up until puck drop, but it’s the Stanley Cup, you dream about this your whole life,” Moore said. "If you can’t have fun with this, you’re in the wrong spot. I’ve been dreaming about this since I was a kid and now I get the chance to do it.”
Though Rangers coach Alain Vigneault has been cagey about lineup decisions all throughout the playoffs, he indicated that he is planning to insert Moore back into the lineup. And considering he missed only a pair of games, conditioning is not a concern for the club in throwing him back into action.
“As far as him being ready, I know that if we need him, he will be. He works extremely hard. He's only missed two games,” Vigneault said. “How he's going to respond after being suspended, that question goes to him. I think he'll be fine. He's given us some real important minutes this year and I think he'll be fine.”
For the record, Moore doesn’t anticipate changing anything in his game just because of the two-game ban he incurred for his hit on Weise. The first-time offender does not have the reputation as a head-hunter or a dirty player, and he sees no reason to adapt his approach because of that isolated incident.
“I think all that other stuff, it happened, and I certainly don’t see that affecting the way I play. It’s unfortunate what happened, but it’s hockey first and foremost. I’ve played it my whole life. I don’t see what happened changing my style,” he said.
Just as they rallied around Girardi following the unfortunate bounce on Wednesday night, Moore’s teammates stood behind him as well after he was hit with the suspension. Knowing Moore is the type of player with a sensitive disposition, they wanted to assure him that he’ll move past the incident.
“John, he's a very good person. Not that other guys aren't, but he's the type of guy that it would affect, being suspended,” de facto captain Brad Richards explained. “But that's over with. He's excited now, that the suspension is over. But we talked about it briefly. That stuff happens. It's a play in hockey that he probably would have done something different in hindsight. He's able to play now. We'll move on. Hopefully he can come in and help.”
And if there was any positive to take from having been forced to watch from the press box as Williams sealed Game 1 with his overtime game winner, Moore came away, at the very least, with a nuanced scouting report on what the Kings bring to the table as an elite opponent.
“There wasn’t a lot of open ice out there, that’s for sure. They play really strong as a five-man unit. They came as advertised. The ice was hard to come by, the biggest thing with [the Kings] was, without the puck, you’ve got to work to be there, support the puck carrier. That’s certainly something I’m going to work on here,” he said.
But the tactics are secondary. The Stanley Cup finals are all about heart and energy and emotion. And Moore can’t wait to take part.
“I think at this time of year, the X’s and O’s are always important, but you’re playing for the Cup and it’s all coming from inside now. Sitting out and watching the game, it sucks,” Moore said. “You’re motivated. It’s really just a battle of will this time of year. I’m pumped to hopefully get the chance.”
The sun and sand should offer at least a brief respite from the disappointment of a 3-2 overtime loss to the Los Angeles Kings that was very much the Rangers' game to steal.
But defenseman Dan Girardi might have a harder time than most forgetting the final play that ultimately cost the Rangers in the series opener at Staples Center on Wednesday night.
It was just a simple bounce, the type that happens so many times throughout the course of a game. But this one came at the most inopportune moment possible. Game tied at 2. The Kings forechecking hard. Just a hop over Girardi’s stick that bungled what should have been a routine clearing attempt but instead forced him into scramble mode.
With the Kings bearing down and Girardi under duress, down on one knee even, he fired the puck toward Benoit Pouliot, but the winger had already taken off. Instead, Girardi fed it right to L.A.’s Mike Richards, who dished to Justin Williams in the slot.
How many times will Girardi turn that one over in his head?
His teammates can empathize with what must be a torturous few days that lie ahead until the Rangers get back at it Saturday for Game 2.
In fact, Girardi’s defensive partner, Ryan McDonagh, remembers the feeling well, having endured a similarly devastating sequence in the playoffs last spring. During Game 2 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, McDonagh drew a delay of game penalty by sailing the puck over the glass, and the Capitals scored the winning goal on the ensuing power play.
McDonagh was despondent after that game, answering questions after the game dutifully but with tears in his eyes. His teammates rallied around him then. And they will do the same for Girardi.
“Our group believes so strongly in each other. We understand that wasn't the deciding factor in the game, ultimately. We could have done a lot more to help our chances,” McDonagh said during Thursday’s media availability at the team hotel in Santa Monica. “It's unfortunate that it happens to us at that point in the game. But he's a guy that has been through so many ups and downs in his career. We know he's going to bounce back and be a huge part of our Game 2 here.”
And one costly mistake will not mitigate Girardi’s critical importance to the Rangers’ team. The 30-year-old comprises the Rangers’ top defensive pairing with McDonagh, and he finished Wednesday’s match with a whopping 27:25 in ice time and a team-leading seven hits. His sound, steady defensive play has been vital as the team has neutralized some of the top lines from opponents all spring. Claude Giroux and his linemates in Round 1. Sidney Crosby & Co. in Round 2. Max Pacioretty's trio in Round 3.
For the Rangers to beat the Kings, or even to have a chance in this series, Girardi has to be resilient. Especially considering L.A.’s considerable depth down the middle.
“Dan is a huge part of our hockey club. I know that he's probably moved way past it and he's getting himself ready to play the next game,” center Derek Stepan said. “We've all been there, like Mac said. If there's a professional that can move away from it, it is Dan.”
McDonagh said he made sure to talk to Girardi right after the play after the game to reinforce that the loss wasn't on him.
Coach Alain Vigneault didn't sound particularly compelled to comfort Girardi. He knows that others are surrounding him with support and bolstering his morale.
“I haven't talked to him yet personally. I do know a couple of my assistants have. I do know that Dan's got great teammates. I'm sure that they've all talked to him,” Vigneault said. “It was a bounce. It was a bounce that unfortunately didn't work out. He couldn't put the handle on it. Stuff like that happens. You got to turn the page and move on.”
What he saw Wednesday night was not good enough. Not even close.
“One thing that's real evident to me, and it should be to our whole group, is we're not going to beat this team if we do not all bring our A-game. It is that strong of an opponent that we're playing against,” Vigneault said in his press briefing Thursday from the team’s hotel in Santa Monica.
Vigneault lauded the 40-save performance by goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, but didn’t sound too enthused about the collective effort.
“We had [Lundqvist] that brought his A-game last night. We had a couple guys. I don't want to name who I think brought their A-game. But our B-game won't do it,” Vigneault said. “We're not going to win if we bring our B-game to the table."
With the game tied at 2, the Kings controlled the period, outshooting the Rangers 20-3 and holding New York without a shot for the first 11:43 of play.
“They had great gap in the third, really took away a lot of our options, forced us to spend time in our zone, forced us to change when we actually got the puck out as opposed to being able to go on the forecheck and make them change,” said defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who played a team-leading 31:12 in the series opener.
The Rangers seemed to surprise the Kings with their speed -- in fact, Game 1 hero Justin Williams admitted as much in his postgame interviews -- as both Carl Hagelin and Benoit Pouliot raced in on breakaways to score on Kings netminder Jonathan Quick to jump out to a 2-0 lead, but they were caught chasing the play far too much in the final 20 minutes.
“I think in the first period we did a great job of using our speed, getting pucks deep, also getting pucks at the net, which gave us some offensive time, a couple faceoffs in the offensive zone,” Hagelin said. “In the third we had way too many turnovers, didn't get deep enough in their zone. They're a good team. If you give them time to skate with the puck, time to spend a lot of time in our end, they're going to do a good job.”
The Rangers got a taste of the Kings' unrelenting, physical game even if it took a while for L.A. to get going. Nothing about that came as a surprise, Vigneault insisted. The Rangers were anticipating having their hands full.
“Everything that I expected, everything that we had talked to our players about, about what to expect, they did it down to a T,” Vigneault said. “They keep doing it. They stay with it. They don't deviate. It's tough to exploit any areas because they're that good.”
In fact, Vigneault singled out the Kings as superior to any other team the Rangers have faced this postseason, which included the likes of the Philadelphia Flyers, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Montreal Canadiens.
Each of those three clubs offered something a little different. The Flyers were physical. The Penguins were skilled. The Habs were extremely structured.
The Kings, it seems, have it all.
“They're one of the best teams I've seen in a long time,” Vigneault said. “Areas to exploit, they don't jump out at you. We're going to have to be better than we were.”
To Los Angeles they go.
The New York Rangers will face the Los Angeles Kings in the 2014 Stanley Cup finals.
It took a thrilling, white-knuckled overtime stretch for the Blueshirts’ fourth-round foe to be determined, but really could it have ended any other way in the wild, wild West?
Two elite teams, the Kings and the Chicago Blackhawks, slugging it out to the delight of hockey fans everywhere, until L.A. snapped a 4-4 draw to knock off the defending champs in what was a riveting, over-the-top entertaining series in the Western Conference finals.
Now, how does this bode for New York?
Well, they had to be all smiles that this one required extra time to decide. Better to siphon all that emotion and energy while the Rangers continue to rest and regroup in advance of Game 1 on Wednesday at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
The Kings have experience on their side, true, but they also enter the final having played three straight seven-game series. Do not discount the fatigue factor.
And though the Rangers likely will still enter the series as underdogs, they may be gaining a bit more traction as a dark-horse contender.
Goaltending. No one will doubt the King’s resilience or skill. But Jonathan Quick does not look like the same guy who led the Kings to the Stanley Cup championship in 2012. Both he and his Chicago counterpart Corey Crawford gave up some extremely suspect goals this spring. Henrik Lundqvist gives the Rangers the irrefutable edge in net.
After that, things get dicey for the Blueshirts.
The Kings boast arguably the best defenseman and top playoff performer in the NHL, 24-year-old Drew Doughty, one of the best two-way centers in the league, Selke finalist Anze Kopitar, and one of the biggest game-breakers out there in Marian Gaborik.
Remember him? Yup, good old Gabby, who was traded by the Rangers at the deadline last season, is leading the league with a dazzling 12 goals this spring.
Should be an interesting series with the Rangers battling it out against one of their old teammates. L.A. has star power aplenty with names such as Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Mr. Game 7 himself, Justin Williams, added to the mix.
How will the likes of Lundqvist, Rick Nash, Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards and the rest of the Blueshirts match up?
For a closer look at the series breakdown, check out ESPN.com’s Pierre LeBrun’s series preview.
BOSTON -- There will be a tendency to suggest this dramatic Stanley Cup win by the Chicago Blackhawks over the Boston Bruins is simply about speed and skill triumphing over a more physical grinding style.
But that would be to sell this Blackhawks team and this final series far short.
That would be to overlook something deeper, more complex, something that was revealed in the final moments of yet another to-and-fro, emotionally draining game. To say this was only about the Blackhawks' skill would be to deny whatever it is that allows a team to score twice in a span of 17.7 seconds in the final 1:16 to steal a Stanley Cup victory from the jaws of Game 6 defeat.
“This group of guys right here, they make you look good every day. It’s a special group, special team,” said Chicago captain Jonathan Toews, the sweat still dripping from the bill of his new Stanley Cup championship cap as he talked to reporters on the TD Garden ice.
“They deserve it more than anybody."
Toews once again delivered in the clutch, scoring Chicago's first goal of Game 6 after the Bruins had taken a 1-0 lead in a dominant first period -- then set up the tying goal late in the third.
Toews' assist was part of a frenzy of activity in the final period, as the Blackhawks withstood a Milan Lucic goal that broke a 1-1 tie and looked like it would send this terrific series back to Chicago for a seventh game on Wednesday. Chicago stunned the Bruins and their fans, first with a goal by Bryan Bickell off a great feed from Toews with 1:16 left, then with a goal by Dave Bolland with 58.3 seconds left in regulation after a Johnny Oduya shot hit the post.
As if by magic, hundreds of Blackhawks fans, most sitting in one section of TD Garden after having traveled to Boston with the team, made their way to the glass on both sides of the rink to cheer on their unlikely heroes.
Patrick Sharp, one of a handful of Conn Smythe trophy candidates as playoff MVP, skated by with his daughter in his hands -- she too sporting a Sharp jersey -- yelling “Two, baby,” driving the already delirious fans around the bend.
And there’s the rub, no?
Both the Bruins and Blackhawks were teams that had been down this road in the recent past, Chicago winning its first Cup since 1961 in 2010 and the Bruins erasing a long drought of their own with a championship the following year.
This final reflected that kind of maturity and experience.
As much as there were stark differences in style, these two teams were full-on heavyweights who embraced a series that was just as much about punch and counterpunch.
It was a series about players who refused to be bowed by lead changes in games or the series itself.
It was about players overcoming incredible pain and injuries to push their respective teams forward in an achingly tight series.
Nathan Horton played with a dislocated shoulder.
Marian Hossa played with a disk issue in his back that caused him to lose feeling in his leg at times.
Bickell was also injured, and head coach Joel Quenneville admitted he was surprised the big winger was able to keep playing on a regular shift.
Toews, who did not play in the third period of Game 5, did not elaborate on his injury status -- nor did Boston captain Zdeno Chara, who was a horse in this series.
Michal Handzus also played with a wrist injury.
“They're deep," Boston head coach Claude Julien said. "They got stronger as the series went on, and they’re a great hockey club. They need to be congratulated on that.
“But at the same time, I'm going to stand here and tell you how proud I am of our team, how those guys battled right until the end. Without getting into all these injuries today, because it's not the time, we battled through a lot.
“You know, when you realize that you're a couple wins away from a Stanley Cup and how those guys push through a lot of things, I have nothing but good things to say about it.”
It was not surprising, perhaps, that a series as close as this turned on a rebound off a goal post. And maybe as time passes, that will imbue this championship with a special quality for the Blackhawks who were there to revel in the moment.
“It’s a great feeling," Blackhawks president John McDonough told ESPN.com. "I didn’t think the first one could feel any better. This one feels better.
“The Stanley Cup feels heavier for some reason. I’m really proud of this organization. This is an incredibly resilient group. Sixteen wins in the postseason, too much overtime, too many dramas, but they play their absolute best when their backs are against the wall.”
When the team won four years ago, Stan Bowman was a GM in his first year on the job, having replaced Dale Tallon the previous offseason. In the wake of the win there was much discussion about the credit that was due Tallon and former executive Rick Dudley.
This time, though, the praise rests with Bowman, who had to divest himself of core players in the wake of the ’10 Cup win to get under the salary cap. In the interim he drafted shrewdly, acquired depth along the blue line in Oduya and Michal Rozsival -- both of whom played key roles during this playoff run -- while locking up key components to long-term deals.
“Pretty special group," said Sharp, who joined this team when they were an afterthought in Chicago and now owns two Cup rings and has elevated his status as one of the game’s top leaders and producers. "We didn’t quite know what we had during the lockout. [To] start the season the way we did, I think this was definitely a goal of ours that could be attained.
“It’s never easy getting here, but the fact [is] that we beat a lot of good teams along the way. I’m proud to say we’re champions."
It was a sentiment not lost on youngsters such as Ben Smith, who got into one game in the final and will have his name inscribed on the trophy as a result.
“It’s unbelievable," Smith told ESPN.com. "Kind of [a] year that I had not been around too much, but just [to] have this experience and be a part of it, it’s huge. I think it was important for those guys wanting to share it with all of us young guys that had kind of come up together, and hopefully it’ll be our turn to pay it forward at some point."
And to hold the Stanley Cup over your head?
“Honestly, it’s a bit surreal," the Winston-Salem, N.C., native told ESPN.com. "It’s hard to explain. I’m sure I’ll think about it this summer that moment and how special it was. Hope to get ahold of that thing a couple of more times before I head home for summer."
Rocky Wirtz, the man who rescued this team from the backwaters of the major sporting world after the death of his father, William Wirtz, admitted he enjoyed this Cup celebration more because he has had two knee replacements since the ’10 Cup win.
“It was a heck of a lot easier to lift it up, and I can actually stand up and not need about 14 Advils,” Wirtz told ESPN.com.
He, too, praised Bowman for the work he has done in redefining this team so quickly after the last championship, a feat that vaults the team to the top of the hockey ladder -- certainly since the introduction of the salary cap in the 2005-06 season.
“What Stan Bowman has done [in] hockey operations is second to none," Wirtz said. "We have nine players back and you realize, you see how we develop players, and he filled the positions. People like Rozsival taking a big pay cut to come to Chicago says a lot. And Johnny Oduya last year. We wouldn’t have made the playoffs, in my humble opinion, without him last year.
“He should be the GM of the year as far as I’m concerned, because it’s easy to talk about [but] it’s hard to do.”
Not far away, the soft-spoken GM admitted that this season was special, starting with 24 straight games with a point after the lockout ended in early January.
"The first one is incredible," Bowman said. "But this one, the feeling is different because it’s just so hard to win. You realize that. You can appreciate the task that we pulled off this year. Not only to win it all, but to win it the way we did. To be on top all year."
As time ticked away in the third period, Wirtz admitted his lucky coin got a pretty vigorous workout.
“I got ahold of my lucky coin; I was rubbing it, rubbing it, rubbing it," he said with a smile while showing the silver coin. "I’m lucky it didn’t tear my pocket off."
On one side is a sun in raised relief. On the other, the word "gratitude."
“Because we’re sure grateful we’re here,” he said.
BOSTON -- The last people on earth to go to for perspective after a barn burner such as the Chicago Blackhawks' 6-5 overtime win Wednesday night are the players.
They haven’t got a clue about just what happened to them.
Oh, they know Brent Seabrook ended this white-knuckle thrill ride at the 9:51 mark of the first overtime period, with yet another big-time cannon shot that eluded Boston Bruins netminder Tuukka Rask and tied the Stanley Cup finals at two games apiece.
But if you ask them what it’s like to be at the center of a maelstrom of a game -- how it felt to be on the ice as these two deep, disciplined teams traded a series of what looked like knockout blows, only to see first one side and then the other get back up off the mat and throw another haymaker -- they have no idea.
How could they, really?
They were living a night that saw Chicago own eight different leads -- including 1-0, 3-1, 4-2 and 5-4 -- and still very nearly find itself down 3-1 in the series heading home for Game 5 on Saturday.
“I hope it was entertaining for you guys," Chicago's Niklas Hjalmarsson said after. "Personally, I didn't really like that at all, as a defenseman.
“Five goals against is too much for me, personally. I was on the ice for three of them. As long as we win, I'll be minus-3 every single game. I'm just happy we won the game."
Game 4 marked the third time in this series that overtime was required to determine an outcome.
If this series goes down as a classic -- and how could it not, given that we are now guaranteed six games at a minimum? -- it will be so because of a game such as this one.
After winning Game 1 4-3 in triple overtime, the Blackhawks had managed to score just once in losses in the following two games.
After the Blackhawks were shut out 2-0 in Game 3 and looked poor in the process, the prevailing thought was that the Bruins were about to strangle the life out of this series en route to their second Stanley Cup in three years.
And the Blackhawks somehow tossed aside that script by putting six past a Boston netminder who had allowed two or fewer goals 14 times this spring and whose name was already half-inscribed on the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
“I don't think anyone expected that before the game,” said Rask, who performed a minor miracle by allowing just six goals while still turning in a handful of brilliant stops.
“Yeah, you know, you think you have a good lead at 3-1," said Patrick Kane, who got a monkey off his back with his first goal of the series (which gave the Hawks a 3-1 lead) after being reunited with captain Jonathan Toews at the start of the game, and who drew an assist on Seabrook's overtime winner. "They make the score 3-2. We score a big goal the next shift; 4-2. Then they score on a power play. It was just kind of back and forth the rest of the game.
"I guess it was just our turn to score again."
What makes a night like this memorable is that all the moments you consider pivotal or defining -- a great play, a horrific turnover, a shot that beats a goalie high glove side -- become dust, specks on the canvas of the game.
Remember the first goal? Chicago's Brandon Saad, a nominee for rookie of the year, stole the puck from Tyler Seguin during a Boston power play, raced the length of the ice and saucered a great pass to Michal Handzus for a shorthanded goal.
Yeah, sort of remember that, even though it feels like it might have been part of another game altogether.
Also, Boston continued to dominate the power-play battle in this series, scoring twice on five chances, and that hardly qualifies as part of the narrative.
Patrice Bergeron continued his MVP-like spring with two more goals, but it was a sidebar, a notebook item.
Kane took an offensive-zone hooking penalty late in the second period, and the Bruins scored to narrow the gap to 4-3 and then tied it early in the third.
Milan Lucic’s giveaway midway through the third period forced David Krejci into a hooking penalty, which the Blackhawks then turned into their first power-play goal of the series and a 5-4 lead.
Just another brightly colored thread in the fabric of something so much more.
Sometimes a game just decides what it’s going to be.
Regardless of what the coaches plan -- and trust us, neither Bruins coach Claude Julien nor counterpart Joel Quenneville planned on a 6-5 win -- and how the players hope to play, the game on those rare nights takes on a life of its own.
"There was a lot of our game tonight that was just average, and average isn't good enough at this stage of the season," said Julien, whose team had not allowed a six-spot in the playoffs since a 1996 series against the Florida Panthers.
No one outside of Julien, whose job it is to view the game differently, is likely to connect "average" and this game.
Twenty-two players had at least a point in Game 4.
"It felt like a roller coaster, that’s for sure," said the Bruins' Rich Peverly, who played his best game of the finals. "You score one. And I don’t know how many goals were scored repetitively, like one after another, within 30 seconds or a minute. Like I said, it’s a roller coaster, so you’ve just got to stay even-keeled."
At one point in the third period, Johnny Boychuk, another Boston goal scorer, nailed Patrick Sharp with a big hip check along the boards. Sharp came after Boychuk after the play, and words were exchanged before the two skated off.
Later in the third, it would be Sharp scoring what looked like it might be the winner, just past the midpoint of the period, with Chicago’s first power-play goal of the series.
The goal snapped an 0-for-23 drought with the man advantage.
After the game, Sharp was asked whether he was looking to drop the gloves with Boychuk, who, just for fun, happened to score the tying goal for the Bruins that erased Sharp’s potential winner and sent the game to overtime.
Sharp was a little incredulous.
"Did I want to fight? I want to win the Cup," he said. "That's what we're all playing for. Fights, goals, who cares? We're just out there battling, both sides are playing hard, playing clean, and it's a fun series to be a part of."
OK, so maybe there is a player or two who can help tell you what it’s like to play in a beauty like this one.
Game 3 Report Card: Boston Bruins 2, Chicago Blackhawks 0
Since the power play includes offense, the grade fits. You could count on one hand the dangerous chances the Hawks had. Duncan Keith probably had one of the best of the night, moving in close on Tuukka Rask early in the game but he chose to pass instead of shoot. It was that kind of night for the Hawks, who seemingly never overcame the loss of Marian Hossa. The offensive lines looked out of sync all night and Hawks coach Joel Quenneville will undoubtedly go back to the drawing board between games, especially if Hossa is out for Game 4. Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp missed the net one too many times.
The defense played fine, neither distinguishing itself in a good or bad way. Michal Rozsival threw a blind pass around the boards in the Hawks' zone, which led to the scoring sequence on the Bruins' first goal, but it wasn't an awful turnover. The second goal came on the continuation of a five-on-three power play and there wasn't much Brent Seabrook could do after Jaromir Jagr made a perfect door-step pass to Patrice Bergeron. But that's all the Bruins would get on the night as the Hawks limited Boston to a manageable amount of good scoring chances, at least during five-on-five play.
Corey Crawford did all that he could, once again getting little help in front of him. The power-play goal came after a picture-perfect pass from Jagr, and Daniel Paille's tally to open the scoring was a good shot off a broken play by the Hawks as they tried to clear the zone. Crawford stopped 33, playing an overall decent game.
The Hawks' power play was brutal once again, getting just four shots on net in 8:11 of man-advantage time. The Bruins added insult to injury getting a power play goal of their own, making it 2-0. The Hawks have had no answers this entire series or postseason when on the power play. In fact it has taken momentum away more than it has given them a boost. Boston had better scoring chances on the Hawks' power play than the Hawks did. That says it all.
CHICAGO -- The contrasting styles of the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks have a specific, intersecting point that will essentially decide the Stanley Cup finals.
The Bruins’ ability to impose their physical forecheck versus the Blackhawks’ lightning-speed transition game will be the deciding factor -- I believe, anyway -- in which club holds Lord Stanley’s mug within this fortnight.
“That’s the whole battle in that series,” agreed an NHL head coach who spoke to ESPN.com on the condition of anonymity Tuesday. “The Bruins got right on top of the Penguins' defense. You have to get right on top of the Chicago blue line and pound them in order to slow them down. They like the stretch pass.”
The Bruins forecheck like few other teams in the NHL, and I think the Penguins would agree on that. On the other hand, the Blackhawks just beat a heck of a forechecking team in the Los Angeles Kings, who indeed play a similar style to Boston's.
So, I asked Bruins winger Shawn Thornton, whose amazing fourth line redefines the word forecheck, how the B’s can do to Chicago what L.A. could not?
“It’s a hell of question,” Thornton said Tuesday. “I think these guys have as mobile a D-corps as there is. Putting pucks into areas where you might usually get them back -- that might not work against these guys.
"I honestly do not have the answer. Other than I think we’re built a bit differently. I’m sure there’s similarities between us and L.A. -- big forwards that can play heavy on the puck and stuff like that -- but these guys are not going to be easy to forecheck on, you’re right. It’s going to be a tough task. But for us to have success, we’re going to have to figure out a way.”
I think Thornton was being a little humble there, much of which was also the Bruins’ tact before playing Pittsburgh.
Believe me, the Bruins know what they need to do to the Blackhawks’ defense, and they intend to pound away.
All of which puts a lot of pressure on Chicago’s blue-line corps to quickly turn pucks around and launch the transition game in a hurry -- before there are Bruins players busting down their door.
“That’s what makes our D-corps good, is by moving the puck quickly to our forwards and getting our forwards moving with speed, getting the puck to them in good situations,” Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook said. “I think there’s a challenge there, whether they’re going to sit back or whether they’re going to forecheck, we still have to get the puck to our forwards and try to get them in good areas with the puck.”
It’s about timely precision.
“We have to connect with passes, we have to come with speed, we have to play our game,” Seabrook said. “It’s worked throughout the season and throughout the playoffs. When we play our game, we have an opportunity to win."
Yes, but let’s remember which team Boston just shut down. The Penguins boast just as much offensive skill as the Blackhawks.
“They’re a big, strong, physical team, much like L.A.,” Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp said of the Bruins. “They can skate, they can move, they can make plays just as any team in the league. It’s going to be a tough task. You see what they’ve done in their playoff run now, shutting teams down. The way they’re playing well defensively, it’s going to make for a tough series.”
This is where it’s going to be interesting to see the chess game between Bruins coach Claude Julien and Hawks bench boss Joel Quenneville. Will there be wrinkles in each other’s game plan to help get an edge in this all-too-important facet of their matchup?
If so, Julien was careful not to reveal too much Tuesday.
“Well, I don't think it's necessarily about slowing them down and sitting back, trying to take away their ice,” Julien said. "It's more about making sure we close quickly. I think that's what we did against Pittsburgh, we tried to close quickly.
"At the same time, closing quickly is one thing, but having numbers back -- we know they've got a great transition game. We certainly have to be aware of that.”
The Hawks know what’s coming. They feel they proved against a rugged championship Kings team that they can take a hit to make a play. But that doesn’t change who they are.
“It doesn’t really change the preparation; we still have to stick to our game plan and play our game,” Hawks veteran center Michal Handzus said. “We can’t look too much to our opponent. We got here because of our play. We have to play to our strengths. Obviously, there will be adjustments along the way, but we still have to have our main focus on how we’re going to play.”
CHICAGO -- There is a significant intertwining of storylines from Slovakia and the Czech Republic on both sides of the Stanley Cup finals divide.
There is the reverence shown the Boston Bruins' Jaromir Jagr, the Czech winger who is in his first finals since 1992.
But perhaps most interesting is the relationship between Boston captain Zdeno Chara and talented Chicago Blackhawks winger Marian Hossa.
The two Slovaks essentially grew up together, played together as young men and now are neighbors living across the street from each other in their shared hometown of Trencin.
"Yeah, we know each other for many years, from back home," Chara said Tuesday. "Obviously we cannot ignore that we know each other, we know the families. But we all know that right now our jobs are [to] play for our teams and compete and do whatever it takes to win games.
"We're pretty good friends. We live really close to each other, knowing each other from very young age."
He acknowledged it was a big deal at home when Hossa won a Stanley Cup in 2010 in his third trip to the finals with three different teams.
"In a way it's an accomplishment to be in the finals," said Chara, whose Bruins won a championship the year after Hossa's Hawks. "We were obviously very happy for him when it happened for him for the third time. I've been saying that for many years: He's one of the best players in the league."
Hossa said he is looking forward to the next couple of weeks, even if the dynamic with his longtime friend will be much different.
"It's going to be really interesting," Hossa said. "Obviously we are good friends. He's my neighbor. He lives right across the street.
"But this coming up two weeks, that has to go on the side and we just have to play the roles. I'm going to play my game, he's going to play his game. I'm sure right after, we'll be friends again. It's going to be [a] hard two weeks, hard battle. It's going to be also fun and I'm really looking forward to it."
If Chara considers Hossa one of the most dangerous forwards in the game, Hossa appreciates a different kind of danger that Chara represents.
"He's the biggest guy on the ice," Hossa said. "His stick is so big. If you don't move your feet, he's going to hurt you, he's going to come close to you and pin you on the board. You have to make sure you're moving your feet, stop and start.
"It's not easy. But if it's possible, it's better to play on the other side [of the ice]."
Hossa admitted he tries to get Chara to lighten up a bit when their paths do cross in the NHL.
"I try to joke with him, because he likes to be serious all the time on the ice," Hossa said. "I know he doesn't like to talk on the ice. I try to throw some funny stories on the faceoff, make him laugh a little bit."
Both teams enter the final series relatively healthy. Of course, the one injury that alters the Bruins’ lineup is the loss of Gregory Campbell, who sustained a broken fibula in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. He was replaced by big Kaspars Daugavins, who was picked up by the Bruins earlier in the year when the Ottawa Senators put him on waivers.
The 25-year-old native of Riga, Latvia, has played in two playoff games, the first in the first round and the second in Game 4 of the conference finals. He knows he must take nothing for granted in the Stanley Cup finals, as there are other players like him waiting and working hard in case they are called upon.
"Obviously, we’re ready all the time," Daugavins said. "We practice hard after guys left the ice, just to keep ourselves ready for situations like it happened. And you want to go in there and you want to be at your prime, playing your best hockey. Because if you do, you get another chance to play one more game.
"If you don’t, somebody else will take your job and do it, and obviously you want to be on ice instead of in press box. It’s what you do, and I enjoy being out there and have a lot of fun playing."
Not only did Daugavins come into the Bruins' lineup, he instantly found himself playing on a third line with Rich Peverley and Tyler Seguin.
He has received loads of support from back home, especially from family.
"Obviously my family is [my] closest supporters," he said. "Even when I wasn’t playing, they said just hang in there your chance will come; if it does, you’d better be ready. Same stuff as probably every parent would say."
The 6-foot, 213-pound winger closed out his junior career playing in Mississauga, Ontario. His junior billet family might make it to Chicago for Game 2, and his father is planning to fly into Boston for Games 3 and 4.
"I have to make sure I play good, then he’ll get to see me in Games 3 and 4," Daugavins said.
Veteran Chicago defenseman Michal Rozsival had an interesting take on the relationship in the team’s anchor defensive pairing of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook.
He said Keith, a former Norris Trophy winner and Canadian Olympian, and Seabrook, also a member of Canada’s gold-medal team in Vancouver in 2010, aren’t afraid to share their feelings -- both positive and negative -- with each other during games.
"I guess that’s the chemistry they developed over the years playing together," Rozsival said. "Even though they sometimes have this kind of love/hate relationship, seems like. I think that’s what makes them good is [that] they push each other. They’re not afraid to tell each other whether it’s right or wrong on the bench. That’s what makes them great.
"I mean, they let each other know whether they’re doing good job or not."
It’s something the other Blackhawks pick up on and feed off of, Rozsival said.
"That’s just the way they are, I think," he said. "That’s the way they kind of push each other, and if they don’t like anything that is happening they let each other know.
"As the players, we love it and you like to see [it], because it’s just saying that they care."