The Hawks carried a seven-game winning streak into the conference finals, having won three in a row to close out their first playoff series against the St. Louis Blues and four straight to dispatch the Detroit Red Wings in the second round.
It was their fourth conference finals against Edmonton since 1983, and the first three tries had not gone well. But the team confronting the Hawks this time was not the unstoppable Oilers who had won five Stanley Cups in seven years. Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, and Paul Coffey were gone, and the Oilers had plodded through the season with a mark of 36-34-10.
The series began with a bang when Steve Larmer tallied for the Hawks only 47 seconds into Game 1 at the Stadium. But Chicago’s All-Star goalie Ed Belfour was shaky, allowing two soft goals later in the period. The score was 2-2 at the first intermission. “Eddie started slow,” said center Jeremy Roenick, “but then he put it in overdrive.”
So did the Hawks, who suddenly transformed the tie game into a rout. A three-goal barrage by Mike Peluso, Roenick, and Steve Smith started 2:51 into the period and concluded less than 90 seconds later. The Hawks now led 5-2, and Game 1 had been decided. For good measure, the Hawks lit the lamp three more times in the third period to make the final score 8-2.
Larmer, an unflappable 10-year-veteran and former Rookie of the Year, had scored the first and last goals of the game and assisted on two others in between. The four points put him over 100 in postseason games for his career, a level previously reached only by Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull, and Denis Savard in Blackhawks history. After the game, reporters asked if Larmer was excited about his performance and the Hawks’ prospects. “Maybe,” he replied. “I guess.”
Edmonton coach Ted Green was more quotable. “We’re certainly going to have to pick up our socks,” he said, “or else it’s going to be a very short series.”
Green proved prophetic. In Game 2, Larmer’s goal off a nifty pass from Michel Goulet tied the score 2-2 with 14 minutes left. Goulet tallied ten minutes later, assisted by Larmer. Stephane Matteau’s goal 45 seconds thereafter put the game away. Defenseman Chris Chelios assisted on all three Chicago goals in the third period.
Game 3 at Edmonton was deadlocked 3-3 after three periods. Two minutes and 45 seconds into overtime, Roenick received a pass from Chelios in the slot and cranked away. Edmonton goalie Bill Ranford never saw the shot. “I heard a chink when it hit the crossbar,” he said. “I was waiting for a cheer [from the Edmonton crowd]. When I didn’t hear a cheer, I knew it was over.” It was indeed. Roenick’s shot clanged off the bottom of the crossbar and spun into the net. The Hawks won 4-3.
The demoralized Oilers had little left for Game 4. The Blackhawks sailed away to a 5-0 lead in the first two periods and prevailed 5-1. Their postseason winning streak had reached 11, a new NHL record, and they were headed to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1973.
By now the Tribune had taken to printing a “Championship Countdown” showing the “combined magic number of wins that would give the Bulls and Hawks championships.” On Saturday, May 23, the number stood at seven for the Bulls (who were tied 1-1 in their conference finals) and at four for the Blackhawks. Alas, the Hawks’ countdown went no further. They were swept by Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the finals, losing the four games by a total of five goals.
The Hawks qualified for the playoffs every year from 1970 through 1997, and made three appearances in the finals, but the ultimate prize continued to elude them, as it had since 1961.
Reprinted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c)2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert