Think about the season the Chicago Blackhawks have had so far. They began 2013 with six straight wins, and shortly thereafter, their points streak emerged as the story of the first half of the early season. They wouldn't lose in regulation until their 25th game, a full half of the season during this lockout-shortened campaign.
Thanks to this stockpile of points (and a perfectly good, if not historic, second half), the Blackhawks would win the Presidents' Trophy, despite the Penguins' regular-season dominance in the East. And unlike Pittsburgh, who had reasons to be concerned about their goaltending entering the playoffs, the Blackhawks had no obvious flaws: They were deep and talented and well-balanced. They were the best team in hockey by a mile at the season's mid-way point, and could reasonably lay claim to that title on the eve of the playoffs, no matter how big a splash the Penguins made at the trade deadline.
And now, after five games of a great Stanley Cup Final, they're a win away from finishing the season as the NHL's best team as well -- the only title that really matters, ultimately. In this sprint of an NHL season, Chicago is one win away from going pretty much wire-to-wire as the team to beat. Of course, as the old hockey saying goes, that very last win is the toughest of them all.
At one point this season, Chicago was almost unbeatable, but they've been more vulnerable in the playoffs. They survived a major scare against Detroit in the second round, and fell behind two games to one against a very good Boston team -- getting outplayed in Game 3 after the two teams opened the series with a pair of overtime games.
This sort of thing is to be expected: It's a whole lot harder to appear invincible in the playoffs, when the competition is so much stiffer. But the Blackhawks have also seen stars like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane slump at various times in the postseason, and in the Stanley Cup Final, injuries have come into play. Marian Hossa missed a game -- when one player missing one game means an awful lot -- and Toews didn't return to the ice after a hit by Johnny Boychuk on Saturday night, though he could play in tonight's Game 6. The latter injury raised some protocol questions, since the winning team's captain is traditionally handed the Cup after the final game of the series. Via Jeff Marek, Bill Daly says there's no rule preventing another player from accepting the Cup, though it's hard to imagine they wouldn't have Toews accept even if he doesn't play.
Of course, imagining the specifics of a Blackhawks celebration tonight is getting ahead of things. In fact, in a series between such evenly matched teams, a winner-take-all seventh game might be inevitable. The series lead has shifted from Chicago to Boston and back to Chicago over the first five games of the series, so the Blackhawks are well past the point of cruising to a wire-to-wire championship. (Though, really, that ship sailed when they fell behind in their series to the Red Wings.)
The truly great teams -- the ones worthy of lifting the Stanley Cup -- don't necessarily need to dominate all the time. Under the intense circumstances of the Stanley Cup playoffs, they simply need to survive. Chicago spent much of this season dominating, but they have one more battle to win, and given the back-and-forth nature of the series, there's reason to think Boston will bounce back from their Game 5 loss. (Boston could be without Patrice Bergeron, however -- according to Claude Julien, he's "day-to-day.")
You sometimes hear talk of a Presidents' Trophy "curse," since the team with the best regular season record often isn't the one lifting the Stanley Cup at the end of the season. (Only one team in the past ten years -- the 2007-08 Red Wings -- has won both the Presidents' Trophy and the Cup.) Obviously, the idea of some sort of curse is nonsense. But the fact that the regular season champion often flames out in the playoffs does say something about how hard it is to earn sixteen postseason victories -- and about how chaotic the playoffs can be in a league where upsets are not uncommon.
This Cup Final matchup, though, isn't the result of a bunch of seemingly random playoff-series outcomes. These are well-constructed teams that deserve to still be playing. And so maybe that bodes well for Chicago, the better team on paper in this series, if not by a whole lot. Perhaps this is one of those rare years in which the best regular season team is also the best postseason team. These Blackhawks have been the team to beat for months, and not only are they still standing, they're just one win away from the Stanley Cup -- their second title in four seasons. The Blackhawks have won a lot of games in this abbreviated season, but it's always that last one that's hardest to get. If it happens, though, it will also be the sweetest.