- - Wednesday, June 9, 2010

PHILADELPHIA | For the Blackhawks, the 49-year wait is finally over. It just took a bit longer than expected.

Chicago’s NHL franchise hadn’t won the Stanley Cup since 1961, the longest such drought in the league. But thanks to a 4-3 overtime win in Game 6 against the Flyers in Philadelphia Wednesday night, the club captured its fourth championship since entering the league in 1926.

And with a chance to bring the Cup back to the Windy City, the Blackhawks carried the momentum of their Game 5 win at United Center Sunday, outshooting the Flyers by a wide margin during Game 6 at Wachovia Center.

Like they have done all spring, the Flyers kept playing their opponents close, keeping within a goal of the ‘Hawks and then with Chicago just four minutes away from the clincher, Scott Hartnell forced overtime with a nice tip in of a Ville Leino centering feed with 3:59 to play in regulation.

But Patrick Kane scored the Cup-winner 4:06 into overtime, giving the Blackhawks the win. It was unusual since the goal light never came on, but Kane started his celebration while the Flyers looked to continue the play. However, replay showed Kane’s shot indeed went inside the net, and the celebration was on for the team in white.

“We were hoping to God that [Kane] was right,” Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said on the ice. “He seemed pretty sure the puck did go in. We took his word for it. It was awesome. … It’s the best feeling in the world right now.”

Toews was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner, given to the most valuable player in the entire playoffs, as he notched seven goals and 22 assists to lead the Blackhawks in points.

The win also crowns a comeback for the Blackhawks franchise, which had slipped badly in the Chicago sports market after missing the playoffs nine of 10 seasons between 1997 and 2008. But when Rocky Wirtz took over the club after the passing of his father, Bill, and the team splurged on several big-ticket free agents, including Brian Campbell and Marian Hossa, as well as landing Kane and Toews in the NHL Draft.

“It’s amazing how quickly things turned around,” Patrick Sharp said afterwards. “You look at the character people on the ice … it’s a great feeling.”

Thanks to the change, the ‘Hawks quickly rose back to prominence in the NHL, appearing in last year’s Western Conference finals and then culminating in this year’s crown.

Chicago, sensing the clincher, came out flying to start the contest, outshooting and outchancing Philadelphia badly in the first period — but they couldn’t hold a brief lead. The teams traded power-play goals despite Chicago outshooting Philadelphia 17-7 in the first 20 minutes.

The Blackhawks struck first on the power play when Dustin Byfuglien got a hold of a Toews dish following rebound off Kane’s shot, and put it past Michael Leighton with 3:11 left in the first for a brief Chicago lead.

But following the late goal, Chicago took a pair of penalties in the period’s last three minutes, and Philadelphia took advantage of a Brett Sopel interference call with just :53 left in the first. With the extra man, Scott Hartnell sent the orange-clad crowd into a frenzy by knotting the score with :26.5 left in the period by poking in a rebound of a Daniel Briere shot past Antti Niemi.

Philadelphia struck first in the second when the Flyers took advantage of Duncan Keith’s skates getting clipped by Hartnell’s, causing the Chicago defenseman to fall. With the extra room creating an odd-man break, Ville Lieno motored in and fed Briere, who rifled a shot past Niemi at the eight-minute mark for his 12th of the postseason.

The Blackhawks, however,  struck back just 1:58 later, when Patrick Sharp took a Dave Bolland pass and put a shot past Leighton’s short side to knot the score at nearly the halfway mark of regulation.

Chicago then retook the lead with 2:17 left in the period, as Andrew Ladd tipped in a Niklas Hjalmarsson shot past the Flyer netminder for a 3-2 lead that the ‘Hawks took into the dressing room.

The ‘Hawks came out and kept the pressure on the Flyers, not allowing a shot until nearly seven minutes deep into the third period with Philadelphia’s season on the line. Briere had Philadelphia’s best chance to keep its season going early, just putting a puck past the far post just halfway through the period.

But Hartnell was able to tip in a Leino centering feed past Niemi with 3:59 left in regulation, sending the sellout crowd of 20,327 into a frenzy. Philadelphia nearly took the lead with just over a minute to play, but Niemi made a great save on Jeff Carter while sprawling.

“We were telling ourselves it was meant it to be,” Toews said of allowing the equalizer late in the third. “It was going to be tough, and you can’t expect to win this game by several goals. It’s going to come down to the wire.”

Philadelphia got a couple of fortunate bounces in the first minute of the overtime to nearly force Game 7, but the series ended in very unusual fashion.

Kane shot the puck into the net, and without the light going on, Kane began to celebrate and join his teammates down the ice. While the apparent goal was reviewed, it was deemed to indeed be the Cup-winner for the Buffalo native.

“To be honest, I didn’t know it was a goal,” Brent Seabrook said afterwards. “It’s great, it shows this team can battle … this season’s been great.”

The Cup also ends Hossa’s quest for his first Stanley Cup ring, as he became the first player to represent three different teams in consecutive seasons. His first two squads — Pittsburgh in 2008 and Detroit in 2009 — lost the Cup.

This time, Hossa got his chance to skate Stanley around the ice.

“It was pretty heavy. Heavier than I expected,” he said. “It was a beautiful feeling.”

The Flyers’ improbable run to the Stanley Cup finals comes to an end just two wins shy of the franchise’s first title since 1975. Philadelphia, who needed a win in a shootout against the Rangers on the final day of the regular season to even qualify for the playoffs, took out No. 2 seed New Jersey in the first round, then rallied from an 0-3 deficit to oust Boston in the second round before dispatching Montreal for the Wales Trophy and the Eastern Conference title.

“I’m proud of our team and the way we compete,” Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said afterwards. “The way we played, the way we never quit. We never gave up. They kept fighting.”

“It was a good learning experience for us,” Richards told reporters afterwards. “I mean, you have to take out of it what it takes to win. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough.”

The Flyers — who were 9-1 at home in this year’s playoffs and carried a seven-game home win streak into Game 6 — couldn’t push the series back to Chicago for a decisive Game 7.

It also was the sixth straight trip to the finals for Philadelphia without the Cup after the team won back-to-back titles in 1974 and 1975.

For three of the Blackhawks — Toews, Seabrook and Keith — the victory also capped a season in which they captured the Olympic gold medal in Vancouver for Canada and the Stanley Cup. U.S. silver-medalist Kane also adds a title to his hardware won in February.

It also is Chicago’s first professional sports title since the White Sox won the World Series in 2005.

With Chicago’s drought ending at 49 years, the unwanted title now shifts eastward, as Toronto is now the only of the league’s “Original 6” clubs not to win a Stanley Cup in the expansion era, taking the last pre-expansion Cup in 1967. A pair of the six expansion teams that entered the league in the 1967-68 season  — Los Angeles and St. Louis — have gone 43 years without ever winning the championship.



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