I can't breathe," said the young woman who stood trembling and watery-eyed on the TD Garden ice next to her future sister-in-law. Amanda Caskenette and Ashley Bickell had just watched a man they both love, Chicago's Bryan Bickell, play a key role in one of the most dramatic games in NHL history, and the pair looked almost stricken, as if they'd seen a ghost. Which made sense, because what they had actually witnessed in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final between the Blackhawks and Boston Bruins was just about as heart-stopping and unexpected, even if they weren't the ones whom it would all come to haunt.
"I'm just waiting for it to sink in," Ashley said.
"We were sitting over there," said Amanda, pointing to the stands behind the net the Bruins had been defending, "so we got to see everything."
"It was just insane," Ashley said.
"I don't even know what happened," added Amanda. "I don't remember."
"Like the last two minutes was just — "
" — it's a blur."
"It's, like, what? What? What? WHAT? You know?" asked Bickell's sister, and I nodded, knowing just what she meant.
The Blackhawks were trailing in Boston on Monday night after a Milan Lucic goal gave the Bruins a 2-1 lead with 7:49 left in the third. With less than a minute and a half remaining in regulation, Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford sprinted to the bench to allow Chicago an extra attacker for a late blitz. The hope was to tie things up somehow, forcing a fourth overtime game in what had been from the beginning a remarkably close series. If Chicago could do that, maybe they could score a game winner in the extra session, the way they had twice before in this series (and the way they won the Cup in 2010).
More likely, though, the Bruins would hang on for the win and force a decisive seventh game back in Chicago. Maybe they'd do so by just holding off the Blackhawks, who had netted only one goal for the first 58-plus minutes of the game. Maybe they'd score on the empty net for a little insurance. Either way, even Bickell's sister figured the game wouldn't reach overtime. Recalling their mind-set, she and her little brother's fiancée1 were at such a loss for words that they couldn't stop talking, interrupting each other again and again like two characters in a Robert Altman movie.
"I'm sorry," Ashley said, "but I'm like, we're going home, it's going seven."
"Oh, I had my face in my hands," said Amanda, "and I was like, nooo, we're going home for Game 7. I was like, I knew I was too excited, I knew it, I knew it, I need to calm down, and then I just looked up and I was like — what happened?"
Here's what happened: Just about 10 seconds after the Blackhawks took the 6-on-5 advantage, Chicago captain Jonathan Toews got the puck from defenseman Duncan Keith and spotted an opening at the far doorstep. He passed the puck through the crease and right to Bickell, who slammed home his ninth goal of the playoffs, each one having leapfrogged the last as the biggest of his career. The elation on his face was so savage it bordered on primal. But what went down 17 seconds later would stun everyone, from the sellout crowd comprising mostly Bruins fans to the scattered but loud pockets of Blackhawks fans, friends, and family to the players themselves. A shot from Johnny Oduya at the point deflected off Michael Frolik, hit the post, and bounced out to Dave Bolland, who lifted it over Tuukka Rask's outstretched stick.
And just like that, the Blackhawks had a 3-2 lead and less than a minute of play separating them from their second Stanley Cup in the span of four years. The reeling Bruins took a timeout but managed just one shot on goal in the last 59 seconds, a 67-foot wrister from David Krejci, and suddenly there was only one team who would be boarding a flight back to Chicago at the end of the night.
"It's very surreal," said Ashley, as her mother embraced Patrick Kane nearby while her brother stood a few feet away, flashing his mostly toothless grin at a cluster of jostling TV reporters. The Blackhawks' equipment manager wandered by, a GoPro camera strapped to his head. Jim Belushi and his son shook hands with Crawford. (Much to the chagrin of Chicago fans.)
"Again," Amanda said, just to make herself clear, "no idea what happened out there."
All across the ice, similar scenes were playing out: Blackhawks mobbed by journalists and well-wishers as their families milled around waving small flags, hugging, and snapping photos. (I even spotted someone toting one of those '90s-era yellow disposable cameras.)
"I want to go find my mom and dad, guys," Keith said as he wriggled out of one interview. It wasn't just his mom and dad who were there: His grandfather stood serenely to the side of the rink in a black Hockey Night in Canada hat ("it's a game of bounces," he told me), while his wife, Kelly-Rae, held the couple's infant son, Colton, who was born during the first round of the playoffs and whose industrial-strength earmuffs — nearly the size of his entire tiny body — had "Blackhawks Wives" written on them in silver marker.2
Marian Hossa stood with an arm around each of his parents, speaking in Slovakian to the foreign press. Patrick Sharp posed for family photos with his daughter and wife. Brandon Bollig skated expectantly toward the Zamboni entrance, searching for his loved ones the way a child leaving school scans the parking lot for his parents. Kane — who was voted the third straight American winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP on the strength of his nine postseason goals, including a hat trick to finish off the L.A. Kings in the Western Conference finals and two goals in Game 5 of the final — laughed with some buddies wearing Blackhawks flags tied around their necks. Toews located his family and they huddled in a group embrace and began to jump up and down.
As captain, Toews had been handed the Cup first by commissioner Gary Bettman, and he quickly passed it off to Michal Handzus, the 36-year-old traded to the Blackhawks from the Sharks earlier this season who was hoisting his first Stanley Cup. He in turn gave it to another former Shark and Stanley Cup first-timer, 38-year-old Jamal Mayers, who handed it to veteran Michal Rozsival, who joined the Blackhawks as a free agent before this season.
"You gotta give it to the old guys, ya know?" Toews said. "Those guys have been around. They've played so many years. You want to win for yourself but for those guys especially — that's the best feeling, I think, is watching those guys, what they've been through in their career, now be part of a special group to win here in Chicago. It's awesome."
These "old guys" weren't the only ones being rewarded for their patience. General manager Stan Bowman had been GM when the Blackhawks won the Cup in 2010, but the team didn't really feel like his; he had taken over from Dale Tallon less than a year beforehand and inherited much of the roster, for better and worse. Weeks after celebrating, the team was forced by major salary-cap limitations to cut loose a number of key players ranging from Brian Campbell to Antti Niemi to Brent Sopel.
And yet Bowman retained the nucleus of the team, guys like Toews, Kane, Sharp, Hossa, Keith, and Bolland — and Brent Seabrook, who would be the one to finally take the Cup off the ice and into the dressing room like a groom carrying his new bride over the threshold. Bowman waited out a few years of disappointing playoff results. He began making moves on the margin, bringing in Rozsival and Oduya, obtaining players like Michael Frolik, and drafting exciting young guys like Andrew Shaw and Brandon Saad. He placed his confidence in coach Joel Quenneville3 and Crawford, the latter of whom easily could have won Conn Smythe honors. ("I think Crow got snubbed, to be honest with you," Kane told NBC.)
"I think there's something about our core," Kane said at his MVP press conference. "Hopefully we can stay together a long time, because that's two Cups in four years, and we seem to only be getting better and better as players as time goes on here."
After the lockout was lifted, the Blackhawks took off with no regulation losses in their first 24 games to open the season, and never really looked back. They bounced back from a 3-1 series deficit against Detroit in the second round of the playoffs, and then knocked off the two defending Cup champions — the L.A. Kings and the Bruins — in the conference and Stanley Cup finals. "It was one of those seasons we were saying, we're almost charmed the way we started the season and the way we ended," Quenneville said.
"The last couple of years have been hard in the playoffs, and we've had good teams," an elated Bowman said as one of his young sons scampered around the ice in a signed Oduya jersey. "It goes to show you it's so hard to win. I'm just so proud of the way our guys hung in there. We've kinda had a target on our back all year long with the way we started. It's hard to do what we did, and I'm just so proud of the guys."
There are two sides to every story, though, and in sports one of them is always a whole lot harder to read. Unless you're a Maple Leafs fan, of course.
… read the trollish front page of the Toronto Sun on Tuesday morning, a reference to the fact that Boston had knocked the Maple Leafs out of the playoffs in the first round in much the same way the Bruins were eliminated Monday night. That first-round Game 7 had been dubbed the "Meltdown in Beantown," with the Leafs squandering a 4-1 third-period lead and ultimately losing in overtime.
On Monday, it was the Bruins who found themselves liquefying, their good fortunes slipping through their hands the way Kane had slipped through their defense for two goals in Game 5. It seemed like things were going Boston's way in Game 6. They led 49-24 in attempted shots through two periods, and two players who had been offensively snakebitten this postseason — Tyler Seguin and Chris Kelly — had connected for the Bruins' first goal. When Lucic scored in the third period to give Boston the 2-1 lead, it seemed like the two teams would be meeting again on Wednesday.
Instead, as Elias Sports Bureau noted, the Blackhawks became the first team to win a Stanley Cup final game in regulation after trailing in the final two minutes of the third, which meant that the Bruins had the ignominious honor of being the first to lose it that way.
"We've done it to somebody else, so we got to feel how it feels being on the other side," said Tuukka Rask, who bleakly described what he was feeling as "nothing." Some of his teammates weren't quite so nihilistically stoic.
"I've never felt anything like this," said Seguin. "I've never cried for as long as this until tonight."
"It's a bad feeling," said Johnny Boychuk. "Bad, like an awful feeling. You can't really describe it." How long would this loss remain with the Bruins? he was asked. "Forever," he said. "I mean, you are going to remember forever. You remember winning it, but I think you remember losing it a little bit more, now that we have had that happen."
Teams winning any championship for the first time often lack the perspective of exactly how they got there; it's only after hoisting the Stanley Cup over your head that you feel every ounce of its sparkling 35 pounds. A relatively light load, for a professional athlete, and yet such heavy lifting.
The playoffs are an arduous journey that takes the two finalists a good two months to slog through, and you can see the strain in every stitch on their faces and each limp in their stride. The winners look like savage nomads as they skate around on the ice, their untamed playoff beards and/or mutton chops in stark contrast to the sleekness of the significant others above whom they loom large in their skates. The losers go straight to the locker room to shave, their facial hair and all it signifies becoming too painful to look at.
And then there are the scars that you can't see, that you don't know about until someone fills you in. Seguin said he'd be going to the doctor on Tuesday, but wouldn't admit what it was for. "I've had the same problems my whole life," he said. Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, who was on the ice for 10 of the Blackhawks' final 12 goals in the series, said: "I'm not talking about my physical status, sorry."
But we did learn what had been ailing Patrice Bergeron to the extent that he missed most of Game 5 and even wound up in the hospital Saturday night: a broken rib, some ripped cartilage, and torn muscles. He returned less than two days later to play nearly 18 minutes Monday night — a game in which he also, for good measure, separated his shoulder.
"I had a lot of help from the medical staff," he explained.
The Blackhawks, too, began the alarming process of disclosing unfathomable injuries. Marian Hossa, who began the final as one of Chicago's best players before missing Game 3 and playing the rest of the series with something clearly nagging, was chipper as he described what was the matter.
"Well, I got something wrong with a disk in my back," he said, the way a car owner might discuss his A/C being on the fritz, "and it was shooting in my nerve and my foot was numb, so I basically couldn't skate much. I'm glad it's over so I can go back to rehab."
You wonder sometimes why these guys do these things to their bodies, why they push past any sort of understandable physical limit. Then you realize it's because some of them are chasing that rare high with the same zealotry that drives some people to summit Mount Everest and others to envelop themselves in religion. In this case, you reach the heavens by lifting the Cup.
Or you meet two people like Andrew Shaw's parents and realize all-or-nothing is the only way their son — who was passed up in two NHL drafts before the Blackhawks took a flyer on him in the fifth round in 2011, and who scored the game winner in triple-overtime of Game 1 when the puck took a fortuitous bounce off his shin pad — has ever known how to be.
Shaw took a shot to the face late in the first period at a range that physically couldn't have been any closer. He went down to the ice, terrifyingly unmoving — that is, unless you knew what to look for.
"Well, because he doesn't usually go down," said his mother, Darlene, "we knew he was hurt. So we wondered if they'd knocked him out."
Next to her, Shaw's father, Doug, nodded. (He once told the Chicago Sun-Times about how his son hid a broken hand at age 11 because he wanted to keep playing hockey.) Darlene brightened at the memory of what happened next.
"But then I could see his foot moving, so — "
"He'd either be dead, or he's gonna play," Doug finished proudly. "That's how he came up."
Shaw, with two parallel railroad tracks' worth of stitches running across his cheekbone and next to his eye, was nearby being interviewed by TV crews. All the smiling and the whooping and the being captured on NBC screaming "FUCKIN' A!" had reopened one of his wide wounds.
Had Doug and Darlene even gotten to say hi to their son?
"Yeah, we gave him a hug," said Doug.
"Every time we get him, they take him!" said Darlene.
But no matter. There would be plenty of time to celebrate with their bloodied, buoyant boy.
"Oh yeah," said Doug. "It'll be a good summer."