CHICAGO — The margin of error was minuscule, the difference between the teams even less.
After playing on a tightrope for two weeks, the dam finally broke and the Chicago Blackhawks beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-0 in Game 6 on Monday night to win one of the tightest Stanley Cup final series in NHL history and capture their third title in the past six years.
“It doesn’t feel real right now. It’s unbelievable,” captain Jonathan Toews said.
“Feels like a dream. Every time we do it, it gets better and better. It’s an amazing feeling.”
The Blackhawks lifted the Cup at United Center for the first time. They had to wait, however, as the trophy was delayed by weather and needed a police escort to the arena. Chicago had not won on home ice since 1938.
Fans didn’t leave for more than an hour after Toews lifted the Cup, many banging on the glass and cheering as music played.
“It’s amazing,” forward Brandon Saad said.
“Full building from when we had the Cup out here. It’s going to be a hell of a city to win it in. Looking forward to the parade.”
Conn Smythe trophy winner Duncan Keith scored the clincher on one of the best individual efforts of the playoffs, and Patrick Kane provided the exclamation point with a third-period goal.
They got help from goaltender Corey Crawford, who made 25 saves to pick up his first shutout of the final. In total he stopped 151 of the 161 shots he faced to outduel an injured Ben Bishop, who was struggling with a groin tear.
“That’s three Cups, six seasons. I’d say you have a dynasty,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman before presenting the trophy to Toews.
Bishop again started in net for the Lightning, fighting through a groin tear but he couldn’t be perfect enough. With a banged-up team in front of him, Bishop made 30 saves as Tampa Bay couldn’t force a Game 7 back home Wednesday night.
“Think it easily could have been us on the ice celebrating,” Bishop said. “It was such a close series.”
A Game 7 is the only thing that could have made this series more historic. Each of the first five games was decided by one goal for the first time since 1951.
In the end the difference was not the stars. Toews had just one goal, while Kane didn’t get on the board until the final minutes of Game 6.
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos was shut out.
As the series turned into a battle of wills, Tampa Bay put forth their final burst of desperation facing elimination. But with several players dealing with noticeable injuries, they didn’t have enough to push back against the playoff-tested and healthier Blackhawks.
Veteran defenceman Kimmo Timonen went out on top, winning the Cup in his final season. He was the first to get the Cup from Toews.
“I’m relieved, I’m happy,” Timonen said. “I came back just to get one more chance. You can always dream about this, but you never know what can happen in hockey.”
With 22,424 screaming fans on their feet, the Blackhawks showed why they’re the team of the decade. Just like in 2010 and 2013, with the Cup on the line, they closed the deal like champions.
“At this point I think maybe it was just a little bit of the experience that kind of weighed over,” defenceman Johnny Oduya said. “Somehow when we play the right way, it’s tough to beat us in seven games.”
After an anthem so loud the crowd drowned out Jim Cornelison, fans chanted, “We want the Cup” before the opening faceoff. Within the opening minutes they gasped as Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov got a breakaway and then again as Stamkos hit the cross-bar.
Bishop thwarted the Blackhawks on a power play with a toe save on Teuvo Teravainen and then another on Brent Seabrook. His best came on a later power play when he stoned Toews on the doorstep.
After Chicago put 13 shots on net to Tampa Bay’s four in the first period, Stamkos got another golden opportunity a minute into the second. Sprung on a breakaway, Stamkos stopped and deked but couldn’t beat Crawford.
The Lightning got the first five shots of the period before Patrick Sharp ignited back-and-forth scoring chances around the midway mark.
A save by Bishop that sent the puck into the stands brought a whistle and more noise to the sold-out arena.
At the 13:13 mark, the place erupted when Keith put the puck on net, followed it for the rebound and fired it past Bishop. As “Chelsea Dagger” played, the Blackhawks moved one step closer to glory.
In the dying seconds of the period, they thought they had a second goal. Instead, Brent Seabrook’s shot rang off the inside of the post to prevent the first-two goal lead of any kind in the series.
With no breathing room for six games, the Blackhawks put the Lightning on their heels in the third period. The push-back brought out some nervous energy, but then Kane scored on a two-on-one rush with Richards with 5:14 left and the celebration began. “Chelsea Dagger” again played over the loud speakers after the final buzzer, followed by “Sweet Home Chicago.”