Chicagoans are the last people on Earth who should take championships for granted, as some sort of birthright. And yet, after the Bulls won their first one, wasn’t there a sense that they would keep winning them as long as Michael Jordan was in uniform?
MJ was simply the best basketball player in the world, as well as the most maniacally competitive, and on some nights his running mate, that Pippen fella, might have been second best.
Imagine, though, if Jordan and Pippen were idled for appreciable periods preceding a playoff run. Can a team win it all with Benny the Bull as its go-to guy? Can Benny skate?
The question comes up because a Blackhawks team preparing for a title-defending playoff run without Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews calls to mind a Bulls squad devoid of Jordan and Pippen.
I know, Kane is skating — skating well, we’re told — and expects to be 100 percent or thereabouts when the Stanley Cup tournament gets going later this week. Good to hear. But a bad wheel is a bum deal in the punishing crucible of playoff hockey, particularly for a finesse skater more reliant on agility and quickness than brute strength.
Coach Joel Quenneville, a realist in all things hockey, has hinted that this recent down time might benefit Toews, whose heavy workload reflects his stature as the ultimate two-way player. Toews brings a soldier’s stoic bearing to his role as Captain Serious, but he resembled a battered rag doll as he skated off the ice wincing after the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Brooks Orpik crumpled him with a check two weeks ago.
Hawks fans were outraged by Orpik’s audacity, but the brutish hit was unfortunately legal. In the playoffs, there’s more where that came from. Toews knows only one way to play. His unyielding drive makes him a vulnerable target.
Last year, the Hawks used the truncated regular season to establish their superiority, winning 36 of 48 games and accumulating 11 more points than the next-best team in their conference. They reaffirmed it in the playoffs with a 16-7 record that involved only one seven-game series and was Bulls-like for its dominance.
This year hasn’t been as easy. Four teams will finish the regular season with more points, three of them from the Western Conference. The Boston Bruins, the overall points leader, have looked like the NHL’s best team since Christmas.
None of this is to say the Hawks can’t repeat. After a 4-0 road loss to the Washington Capitals on Friday, they were 7-5 since Kane went out, and after overcoming the shock of seeing Toews leveled they reeled off four straight wins.
They have a roomful of tough, savvy playoff hands, led by the ever-gnarly Duncan Keith. Marian Hossa had one of those “won’t let ’em lose” games against the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday, again demonstrating why, at 35, he’s still one of the best athletes on skates. Patrick Sharp has had a wonderful year. Andrew Shaw is much more than an irritant. Kris Versteeg is good on the ice and better in the room. Jeremy Morin’s emergence speaks to the success they’ve had restocking the roster after 2010’s salary-cap devastation.
Depth was the difference for the Hawks that season as they ended a 49-year Stanley Cup drought. It helped them negotiate a schedule that was dangerously compressed by the NHL’s Olympic commitment. And its dissolution was more responsible for the following season’s shortcomings than the “Stanley Cup hangover” that was conveniently blamed.
There hasn’t been much hangover talk this year, primarily because the Hawks have restored the depth required of a Cup contender in an Olympic year, even without wily Dave Bolland.
The NHL is 16 years without a repeat champion, the longest “drought” in the major sports leagues. For myriad reasons, it’s an incredibly difficult feat to achieve. But the Hawks remain the city’s best bet to add more hardware and throw a parade.
Some Bears zealots began booking Super Bowl reservations with the Jared Allen signing — do they have to play the regular season? The Bulls’ grit could carry them far in an Eastern Conference rendered winnable by the Miami Heat’s fragility and the Indiana Pacers’ implosion, but four teams out West could handle Thibs’ terrors best of seven.
In 2003-04, the Hawks finished 29th in the NHL with 59 points (20-43-11) and 29th in attendance (13,255 fans per game). A decade later, sellouts are a given, and we’ll be disappointed if they don’t hoist the Stanley Cup for the third time in five years.
Amazing. You’d like to think the Cubs could stage something similar, but they let the Hawks steal their smartest guy.