Antoine Vermette was spoiled once, too. His first year in the league, his Ottawa Senators made the playoffs. His second year, they won a series. His third year, they played for the Stanley Cup. By age 24, he had played in 34 playoff games, and probably figured it would always be like that.
“We had a great team,” said Vermette, now 32 and still without his name on the Stanley Cup. “As a young guy, the older guys [were always] making sure you realize the fortune you have to have such a great team. As the course of a career goes on, time goes by quick. Those chances, they don’t come by too many times.”
They have so far for so many of the Blackhawks, though. Saturday’s Game 7 of the Western Conference final in Anaheim will be the 111th playoff game of Jonathan Toews’ career, and the 110th of Patrick Kane’s. Toews is just 27. Kane is 26. Andrew Shaw has reached the conference final in all three of his full NHL seasons. Brandon Saad has, too. Marcus Kruger has done so in three of his four.
Spoiled, all of them.
But as Vermette learned the hard way, it won’t always be like this. The Hawks’ sustained success has been unprecedented in the salary-cap era, but it can’t last forever. Nothing is promised, not even next season, when the Hawks will have to look quite different — albeit still star-studded — to get under the cap.
“I don’t take anything for granted being here,” Kruger said. “I’m fortunate. I try to take advantage of it. I mean, I understand [by] talking with other players, you don’t come along with a group like this every year.”
It’s something the older players have drilled into the younger players’ heads year after year. It’s a lesson learned from watching 39-year-old Jamal Mayers, 36-year-old Michal Handzus and 34-year-old Michal Rozsival jubilantly lift the Stanley Cup for the first time in 2013. It’s one of the many things that fuel the Hawks as they try to move past last year’s Game 7 loss to the Kings, and reach their third Stanley Cup Final in six seasons. And it’s a big reason the Hawks are 14-4 when they can eliminate an opponent, and 10-4 when they can be eliminated.
You can’t lose that desperation, that hunger, no matter how many times you get to this point.
“When we realize our season’s on the line, we kind of think back to everything went into us getting to this point,” Toews said. “We realize the opportunity we have, the group that we have — throw everything into the mix. That’s your motivation, right there, to go throw everything at them.”
The painful memories of last year’s Game 7 against the Kings — Alec Martinez’s shot from the point ticking off of Nick Leddy’s jersey and knuckling past Corey Crawford in overtime, after the Hawks squandered three separate leads in the game — add to the Hawks’ fire, too. Some players can only dream of being one goal away from a Stanley Cup Final. For hockey one-percenters like the Hawks, it was a nightmare.
“We’re privileged to be back here, but we want to keep going,” Shaw said. “We want to go further.”
Saturday night’s game will be the Hawks’ 59th playoff game in a little more than two years. It will be their 271st NHL game (not counting preseason) since January of 2013. And eight of these guys played in the Olympics last year, too.
Never mind the physical exhaustion from all those minutes. Never mind the physical toll that Ryan Kesler keeps insisting the Ducks are taking on the Hawks. The trick is always to overcome the mental fatigue — all that hockey, all those pressure-packed games, all that emotion — and to play every series, and every Game 7, like it’s your first.
Because you never know which one will be your last.
“You never get tired of hockey,” Kruger said. “We play for these big games. That’s what everyone plays for.”