Looking back: Chicago Blackhawks, 1991-92 Campbell Conference Champs

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Saturday marks the end of an 18-year wait for Blackhawks fans to witness their team compete for a Stanley Cup as the ‘Hawks face-off against the Philadelphia Flyers. I’m not sure of the exact number, but I’m assuming after reading that sentence the amount of erections and spontaneous orgasms amongst ‘Hawks fans just doubled.

Hopefully we’ll get a better result than the last time the Blackhawks battled a team from Pennsylvania for hockey’s ultimate prize. In the 1992 Final, the Mario Lemieux-led Pittsburgh Penguins swept the Blackhawks right out of the NHL’s 75th Anniversary season to claim their second straight Stanley Cup. I was at Game 4 and remember watching Lemieux skate with the Cup. As a 10-year-old, it was hard to be disappointed seeing a guy who gave me one of the greatest hockey moments of my life earlier that evening. Nonetheless, I felt defeated.

And I never thought it would take this long to get back.

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The Blackhawks’ revered 1991-92 season garners a drastic amount of attention in Chicago due to a conference championship, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. The surprise rests in the fact the Blackhawks weren’t exactly performing comparably to their Presidents Trophy season of the previous year. Mike Keenan’s squad finished with 19 less points (87, down from 106) and went a mere 13-20-7 on the road as the Detroit Red Wings ran away with the Norris Division title.

Sometimes overlooked and completely unknown to the younger ‘Hawks fans of today, Chicago hockey had the core and potential for a Stanley Cup dynasty. They weren’t quite Atlanta Braves close, but the Blackhawks were known as a team who couldn’t get over the hump in the Campbell Conference. The ‘Hawks lost in the conference finals four times in the 1980’s — during the tail end of the New York Islanders dynasty and through the reign of the Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers.

Finally, during the 1990-91 season, the Blackhawks broke away from the pack. They ran away with the Norris, secured the best record in the NHL and headed into the playoffs with a This-is-the-Year mentality. Then, the upstart Minnesota North Stars came along and knocked the Blackhawks out in 6 games — in the first goddamn round — on their way to the Cup Final.

So when the Blackhawks finished 11 points behind Detroit in ’91-92, the ‘Hawks were no longer the favorite. Ed Belfour won the Vezina Trophy the previous year — his rookie season — but fell into a sophomore slump, limping to a 21-18-10 record with a paltry .894 save percentage. Rookie goaltender Dominik Hasek stepped in to win 20 games and the immortal  Jimmy Waite went 17-4-7.

After busting on the scene as a 21-year-old phenom the previous season, Jeremy Roenick led the ‘Hawks with 53 goals and 103 points. Steve Larmer, Michel Goulet, Chris Chelios and Brent Sutter all chipped in with 50-point seasons and the ‘Hawks headed into the playoffs against division-rival St. Louis.

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The ‘Hawks fell behind 2-1 in the series, including a double-OT loss in Game 3, before winning three straight to move on to the Norris Division Finals, where the favored Red Wings awaited. The Wings were coming off a grueling seven-game series against those pesky North Stars, but survived — unlike the previous season’s Blackhawks.

This year would be different. Playing the role of underdog to perfection, the ‘Hawks won three one-goal games and completed an improbable sweep of the Communists. If you’ve been to a regular season ‘Hawks game at the UC the past two seasons, you’ll hear Pat Foley’s call of Sutter’s goal in Game 4 which gave the ‘Hawks a 1-0 victory and a berth in the conference finals.

Once again, Edmonton stood in the way. However, these Oilers were a shell of their former selves. Vincent Damphousse led the Oilers in points, and Bill Ranford manned the net. Comparable to how ‘Hawks fans would’ve felt this season if the Red Wings were the opponent in the conference finals, fans felt the same about Edmonton. Despite the fact the ‘Hawks were the better team, Edmonton was the evil brother who woudn’t let us get a go on the proverbial swing.

It didn’t matter. The Blackhawks routed the Oilers in Game 1, 8-2, and never looked back. After a Game 3, OT win in Edmonton, the ‘Hawks closed out the Oilers with a 5-1 thrashing to complete the sweep and earned a date with the defending champion Penguins.

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The Blackhawks’ 11-game playoff winning streak came to an abrupt end. The ‘Hawks led 4-3 late in Game 1. The Penguins tied the game, and Lemieux broke our hearts and scored the game-winner with 19 seconds left. Then, the Penguins dominated Game 2 and won 3-1, taking a two-game series lead back to raucous Chicago Stadium.

A tight battle ensued in Game 3, and once again the ‘Hawks fell short, losing 1-0 on a Kevin Stevens goal. And after a rather low-scoring series, each team busted out in Game 4. Captain  Dirk Graham scored a natural hat trick in the first period, but Jaromir Jagr held tight as the teams traded goals. The Blackhawks would go up 5-4 but would lose their third one-goal game of the series, 6-5, and the dream was dead.

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There’s been a ton of talk about the Flyers being a team of destiny this season because of their fantastic run to make and then succeed in the playoffs. But in 1991-92, the Penguins were the definition of such a distinction. Their coach, Bob Johnson, passed away, leaving Scotty Bowman to come out of the front office and coach the team. The Penguins rewarded Johnson with the Cup. Pretty inspiring.

This season, the ‘Hawks are hoping to destroy the theory and capture their first Cup since 1961. It didn’t happen in ’92,  and Saturday another team from Pennsylvania awaits. Time to get nasty.

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