It's tough to remember a half-filled United Center, a hockey team relegated to the back pages, and an original six team owned by a malicious self-absorbed owner. However, that was the case just six years ago on Chicago's west side.
Prior to the 2007-2008 season, the Chicago Blackhawks' chief offender Bill Wirtz passed away. This left the organization with its first opportunity to heal the wounds left throughout the community; wounds perpetuated by the worst owner in sports.
It wouldn't be easy. Yet, for the Hawks, their hard transition into this new era would be softened by the arrival of two young superstars: Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. The two already joined a talented nucleus that featured young defensemen Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith. A late season acquisition the prior year brought Patrick Sharp from Philadelphia. A healthy Nikolai Khabibulin in net would prove beneficial, as well. Couple this with a couple savvy off-season additions like Jason Williams and Robert Lang, and the Blackhawks suddenly had a respectable team. During the season, familiar names would arrive that would have an impact on the team's first Stanley Cup victory in 49 years: Troy Brouwer, Andrew Ladd, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Colin Fraser, Ben Eager, Dave Bolland, and Kris Versteeg. However, with the Hawks still a couple years away from history, it's important to remember the laughable: the slow-motion slap shot of Andrei Zyuzin, the confusing meandering of Sergei Samsonov, and the bloodied waste of space known as David Koci.
Today, the Blackhawks celebrate their 17th consecutive game without a loss in regulation. They have already won a Stanley Cup. If you told Hawks fans this in 2008, they'd think you were crazy.
In order to appreciate the present, you have to look back at the past. The 2007-2008 Blackhawks provided the stepping stone to what we see today. Here, I rank my top 10 favorite games from that memorable team:
10. Chicago Blackhawks 5, Washington Capitals 0
It was Tony Esposito night. The hall of fame goalie was honored with a virtuoso performance by Khabibulin. A sellout crowd at the UC, something that was still rare, got to see the Blackhawks put it all together for one night. The game is best remembered by die hards due to one of the best saves made by a Blackhawks goalie over the past 25 years. Enjoy:
9. Chicago Blackhawks 3, Nashville Predators 1
The previous evening the Blackhawks were eliminated from the playoff race. This night would be the final home game of the 2007-2008 campaign. The Blackhawks rewarded their fans by putting together one of their most passionate performances of the year. After the game, the team saluted the crowd, and threw sticks and gloves into the stands. It was the first of many positive gestures that led the Hawks to becoming beloved again.
8. Chicago Blackhawks 6, Detroit Red Wings 2
The Blackhawks were still in the playoff race with three games remaining. They need to win out, and get some help. Against the future Stanley Cup champs, the Blackhawks buried the Wings early. This would be the final game where Detroit fans would hold a solid contingency at the UC. Patrick Kane dazzled. You even get an Adam Burish sighting. Beauty.
7. Chicago Blackhawks 2, Dallas Stars 1 (OT)
The Blackhawks continually lost games like this over the years: hot goaltender shows up, Hawks pepper him with shots, nothing goes in, rinse, repeat. After an amazing performance in net by Tobias Stephen (oddly enough, his only appearance of the year), the Stars clung to a 1-0 lead late in the 3rd. Toews rips one from the point...does it hit Sharp...does it hit Lang? Who cares. The game is tied with seconds left. Jason Williams wins the thriller in OT. I remember driving back from South Bend while this game was on; it still gives me chills.
6. Chicago Blackhawks 4, Ottawa Senators 3 (OT)
It's hard to remember, but there was a time where the Ottawa Senators were the NHL's team of the future. The Sens busted out in the 07-08 campaign by going 29-10-4. With the best record in the east, the Blackhawks were coming into the capital city with little hope of winning. However, a key short-handed goal and some timely goaltending gave these young Blackhawks arguably their most impressive win of the season.
5. Chicago Blackhawks 2, Calgary Flames 1
Much like the Senators, it's tough to remember the Flames as being a team to beat in the west...but this was still the case in 07-08. On Thanksgiving night, the Hawks were outplayed in every phase...except the scoreboard. In his first NHL game, Jake Dowell stunned the Flames with a short-hander. The Hawks, then amazingly, grabbed yet another for a stunning win.
4. Chicago Blackhawks 3, Detroit Red Wings 2
The Hawks couldn't beat the Wings again...could they? For some reason, the 2007-08 Blackhawks had the eventual champs' number. Just one week after their opening night victory, the Hawks sauntered over to Joe Louis and popped the Wings in the mouth one more time. This time, the Hawks showed some major character for a young team, coming back from a 2-0 deficit.
3. Chicago Blackhawks 4, St. Louis Blues 3 (OT)
The Hawks had gone through a rough patch in early March of 2008. This patch led to a press conference tirade from the normally polite Denis Savard. The Hawks started to turn the tide late in the year with a big victory against the Caps...then, they pulled out a miracle on Easter, salvaging victory from the jaws of defeat. This was Patrick Kane's second biggest moment of the year.
2. Chicago Blackhawks 6, Toronto Maple Leafs 4
You might wonder why this game is so high. Well, the Blackhawks were making one of their infrequent visits to Hockey Night in Canada; playing on the country's biggest stage. In the pre-game, members of the original six franchises were honored. The old Blackhawks would find heroes with the new Blackhawks. Canada would be introduced to Toews and Kane for the first time. On a national stage, the Hawks shined brightly; putting forth their best offensive game of the season. Down 3-1, the Hawks went OFF.
1. Chicago Blackhawks 4, Detroit Red Wings 3 (SO)
There's no doubt about this one. The Blackhawks fought off the eventual champs in the United Center's first night of the post-Wirtz era. Down 2-0, it was supposed to be another Detroit rout at the UC. The Hawks rallied back. In the shootout, Denis Savard made an odd selection for his first shooter. Patrick Kane, in his first home game, would go against hall of fame goaltender Dominik Hasek. Savard, a young superstar himself years ago in Chicago, handed the franchise to the kid. Kane delivered. And the rest was history.