Blackhawks primed to end Cup drought

By Dan Di Sciullo
NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - After a half-century of waiting, the Chicago Blackhawks and their fans may finally get another Stanley Cup championship to celebrate.

The Blackhawks last lifted Lord Stanley's Cup in the spring of 1961, a year about which I've gathered most of my knowledge from watching the AMC series "Mad Men". Sadly, Don Draper and the folks at Sterling Cooper never mention that particular Chicago hockey title, so I've been forced to glean information about the championship from non-televised sources.

The franchise's last title came when the Blackhawks beat the Detroit Red Wings in six games 49 years ago, giving Chicago its third Cup -- the fewest championships won by an Original Six team. Also, Chicago's current Cup drought is the longest in the NHL.

Chicago would go on to make the Stanley Cup Finals four times in the 12 years following their last title, but went away empty-handed every time. After the 1973 playoffs, the Blackhawks made just one trip to the Cup Finals and that was in 1992, when they were swept by Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Blackhawks have proven themselves to be the most formidable team in this year's playoffs.
Now, after all those years where it seemed like their team had little or no chance at challenging for a Cup, the Blackhawks can practically taste a championship.

On Sunday, Chicago brought the Western Conference finals to a swift conclusion, completing an impressive sweep of the top-seeded San Jose Sharks. Following that decisive series win, the Blackhawks will be a considerable favorite in the Stanley Cup Finals, and with good reason. Whether Chicago faces either Philadelphia or Montreal in the next round, the Blackhawks have proven themselves to be the most formidable team in this year's playoffs.

Chicago really hit its stride in the conference finals, making quick work of the Sharks, knocking off its second division champion of this postseason after also downing Vancouver in Round 2. Now, all that will separate the Blackhawks from the Cup is either the seventh or eighth-seeded team from the Eastern Conference.

That's why the most difficult task for Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville in preparing his team for the next round should be preventing his team from being overconfident in the Stanley Cup Finals.

It's become increasingly difficult to find flaws on this Blackhawks team and after turning in a superb series against San Jose, the task has become nearly impossible. Everybody agreed before the playoffs began that Chicago's weakness was in net, but Antti Niemi and his 12-4 record during this postseason have quieted those fears.

At this point the only real reasons left to pick against Chicago in the Cup Finals would be illogical ones, you know, something of the curse variety.

Snake-bitten Blackhawks winger Marian Hossa provides the best argument of this kind, as he's been on the losing team in each of the last two Stanley Cup Finals. Of course, Hossa lost to Detroit as a member of the Penguins in 2008, then jumped ship to the Red Wings in the ensuing offseason, only to watch as his former Pittsburgh teammates exacted revenge on Detroit in last year's Cup Finals.

But, even if Hossa is feeling considerable pressure to erase his recent Cup failures, what makes the Blackhawks such a great team is that they are never about just one player. The team boasts incredible depth at both the forward and defensive positions and has 11 different players with more than one goal in this postseason.

Even though Hossa obviously was a member of talented teams over the past two years, his role on both Pittsburgh and Detroit seemed bigger than his current place on the Blackhawks. He is still a productive offensive weapon, but so are Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, and Dustin Byfuglien, a group that has combined to score 29 goals this postseason.

Even with the 49-year Cup drought, the last two years still have an "overnight sensation" vibe for Chicago. After all, prior to making the conference finals last year, the Blackhawks had spent the previous five postseasons as a bystander, and this spring marks just the club's third playoff appearance in 12 seasons.

Chicago has turned things around the slow way, identifying talent in the draft and developing players into solid contributors. It hasn't hurt that often, as in the case of Toews, Kane and defenseman Duncan Keith, the Blackhawks have been able to acquire superstars through the draft.

Yet, even though this Blackhawks team is loaded with young talent, it's hard to say in this salary cap era how big of a window this team has to win a Stanley Cup.

Toews, Kane and Keith have already been locked up long-term, but the team also owes a great deal of money to free-agent signings from recent years like Hossa and Brian Campbell or current backup goaltender Cristobal Huet, who is still owed $11.25 million over the next two years.

But, the potential salary cap problems are an issue for GM Stan Bowman to resolve down the road. As it stands now, the Blackhawks are in great shape to call themselves champions for the first time since the Kennedy administration.

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Dan Di Sciullo
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