The Chicago Blackhawks, the first two-time champions in the NHL's salary-cap era, could tell you better than anyone: It takes an entire team to win a Stanley Cup, but nothing is possible without the right core.
When Chicago won this thing in 2010, it seemed for all the world like there wouldn't be a sequel. The Hawks were right up against the cap, and that summer, they had to let too many key pieces go. Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, and Kris Versteeg were traded; Antti Niemi and Cristobal Huet were allowed to sign elsewhere. But this wasn't a reboot for GM Stan Bowman, who deserves all the credit in the world; it was just a reload.
Three years later, and it's clear that these are, holistically and psychically, the same Blackhawks. It's still Toews and Kane, and Hossa and Sharp and Bolland, and on the blue line Keith and Seabrook and Hjalmarsson. And yes, it's still coach Joel Quenneville, who somehow survived a pair of first-round playoff exits playing under a GM who didn't hire him.
Last night's game-tying goal was the goal. Dave Bolland's winner was the sort of deflection that's been going Chicago's way all series, and seemed almost inevitable with the way the air had already been taken out of the TD Garden. But Bryan Bickell's put-home with 1:16 remaining, as much as one single play can, summed up how the Blackhawks got back to the finals, and how they won it.
It starts with Patrick Kane, carrying the puck through four Bruins to hurl a shot on goal. Kane, one of the least physically imposing stars in the league, fears no one and no situation. He simply had enormous balls all series, and he's done everything right these playoffs en route to his first Conn Smythe. Last year we dubbed him the potential face of American hockey; we're counting down the days until Sochi.
But this was a team goal. When Kane went after the puck in the corner and was tied up by Dennis Seidenberg, there was Jonathan Toews swooping in to poke check it away from David Krejci, milliseconds away from a clear. Duncan Keith, the third member of that homegrown trio that's been here for everything, was where he needed to be. Pinching off the boards, he fired it to Toews, who had peeled off down low. Toews took a breath, noticed Michal Handzus and Bryan Bickell swooping in behind Chara and Lucic, both puck-watching, and slid the puck right through Chara's legs. Chara sprawled, Bickell finished, Chicago equalized.
(The goal came against the grain of play, but not against the grain of the series. The Lucic-Krejci-Horton line, and Boston's top defensive pairing of Chara and Seidenberg, had been getting brutalized for a few games. Game 6's possession metrics are ugly.)
It's noteworthy that Bryan Bickell finished what the Hawks core started, because once the Cup has been paraded and the champagne finished, the Blackhawks have to get down to the familiar business of reloading. It won't be as ugly as in 2010—they have just six UFAs, including Bickell, Handzus, Viktor Stalberg, Michal Rozsival, and Ray Emery, and will have about $18 million to play with under the cap. But Bickell's the perfect example of the complementary player Bowman has brought in to surround his core. A tough winger in the David Backes mold, Bickell had a hell of a contract year—nine postseason goals. Someone's going to give him Backes money, and it won't be Chicago unless they jettison someone valuable to hang on to him.
These are the decisions that have to be made, and if the Blackhawks hope to be back here next year, or in another three years, they'll have to make all the right ones. The Red Wings and Penguins and Bruins, NHL royalty all, haven't been able to recapture their salary-cap championship magic. Chicago's done it once. In just a few days, the quest for another Cup gears up again. For now? It's Kane and Toews and the rest, champions again.