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Hello from the Other Side

I was supposed to write a Game 7 recap, ages ago now.

(Here’s a line from the recap-that-wasn’t: thanks a lot, Troy-effing-Brouwer. First the Winter Classic, now this? Ugh.)

Instead, I licked my hockey wounds and then got on a plane to go to Europe. I spent a week and a half checking scores of games that didn’t really matter to me. I streamed the radio feeds of the few afternoon games that were scheduled. Once, I woke up and hockey was still occurring, thanks to the Sharks/Predators triple overtime game.

I didn’t think much about the Blackhawks, outside of dealing with my own complicated feelings about the Blues and the Stars series. It was surprisingly relaxing.

(Here’s another line from the failed recap: can you, in all honesty, say that you thought the Blackhawks were going to pull out a win? The fact that they gutted it out to get to a game seven was impressive, same with the fact that they came back from being down 2-0 in the game, but nine shots in a do-or-die third period does not a series winner make.)

Last year, sitting around and talking hockey with a group of friends at the end of the season, we all agreed on one thing: we either wanted the Blackhawks to go all the way, or to end things early. Why prolong their misery and ours, slogging towards defeat? Take the loss on the chin, go home, enjoy a rare, long summer.

Sure, that’s not the attitude fans are expected to have, especially of a team where “One Goal” is the Stanley Cup, and anything less is disappointment. The Blackhawks aren’t a team that’s supposed to be “just happy to be here” when it comes to the playoffs.

But last year, would anyone have really been surprised if they’d gone home in the first round? They had an average season — well, average for the Blackhawks; great if you’re a team constantly on the outside looking in — and endured injuries, goalie controversies, and reportedly some locker room drama. They didn’t look dominant. They didn’t look unstoppable — right up until the moment they were, and Jonathan Toews was hoisting the Cup overhead for the third time.

I’m still not entirely convinced that last year’s playoff run happened, to be honest. Like, I went to the rally. I have personally touched the Stanley Cup in Chicago. It still feels kind of like a lie — or maybe the final gasp of a team that had one last run with its core before pieces needed to start getting shipped out.  

Don’t misunderstand, I don’t think the “championship window” is closed for this team. But the 2014-15 season felt like it was “winning one for the boys” before the boys got shipped off to places like Dallas and Columbus and Raleigh.

The 2015-16 season wasn’t exactly a rebuilding year, but instead was a “well, let’s see what happens” year.

There was some good: Artemi Panarin and Artem Anisimov helped fill out a second line that had always struggled to find a way to best support Patrick Kane.  A handful of Rockford prospects got their cups of coffee, some sticking around longer than others, some getting just enough taste to keep them hungry for the future.  At times, the team looked unstoppable — enough to get the hopes up of some of us more pragmatic fans.

But there was a lot of bad, too. (And we’re just talking on ice performance, here.)  A rotating cast of defensemen, after Trevor Daley didn’t mesh with Quenneville and the replacements (Rob Scuderi, my god, I still can’t believe that happened) were not particularly good or consistent or, in some cases, anything other than tall (that means you, Viktor Svedberg). Players having uncharacteristically down years, offensively speaking (Jonathan Toews and the No Good Very Bad Dwindling Offense From Marian Hossa). The enormous Brandon Saad and Johnny Oduya-shaped holes in the lineup, and a cap-unfriendly anchor in the form of poor, beleaguered Bryan Bickell.

No matter how much lip service the team wanted to pay to the idea of going all in — and losing Phil Danault and Marko Dano was certainly the price of going all in — this was a team that had some major structural issues from day one of the season. I understand not wanting to recognize that, having the desire to view your team with rose-colored glasses, but this is what we’re left with: an aging core, a coach who hates change, the overvaluation of role players, and little money leftover to fill in the gaps.

Blackhawks fans have been incredibly spoiled since 2009. The team, which built around skill and speed, has been the model franchise for the NHL, with a roster makeup that many teams are still trying to emulate.

The Pittsburgh Penguins this year proved that speed and possession are still the elements that win you a Cup, along with trusting a youth movement to step up and contribute. It’s not grit, it’s not size, it’s not even necessarily ugly goals.

The Blackhawks used to be exactly that sort of team. Are they going to find their way back to that model? Or are Blackhawks fans going to have to get used to some more early exits from the playoffs?

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