For nearly six weeks, the Toronto Maple Leafs were just a memory.
How had that band of young upstarts, in the playoffs for the first time since 2004, come within 52 seconds of eliminating the Big Bad Boston Bruins? For weeks after, those frantic moments when the Bruins scrambled back to win Game 7 after being down 4-1 with 11 minutes left seemed merely a first-round hiccup.
The Bruins, after all, had found their stride since. They had roughed up the New York Rangers and then, with delicious impudence, sent the prima donnas of Pittsburgh packing in four games.
Then the Blackhawks came out for Game 5 as though coach Joel Quenneville had brandished a cattle prod in the pregame speech, and something shifted. The Blackhawks, who are quite well equipped to match the Bruins' wrecking-ball style of hockey, found a new gear – almost as though they had forgotten they had it – and the Bruins could do nothing about it.
For a moment, it looked like the Maple Leafs all over again.
There can be something mesmerizing about Bruins hockey. For a sport played mostly by big, angry boys with sticks, it can be a default mode. The crowd loves it. North American players have been raised in the Cult of Don Cherry to believe this is "real hockey." You hit me, I'll hit you. And again. And again. It is the endlessly repeating integer of Boston's Stanley Cup equation.
In truth, the real genius of Boston hockey is that it is about making opponents pay an enormous price for every goal. Often, that price is physical. Sometimes, it is mental. The Penguins, for instance, must have wondered when they were ever going to score.
But at its core, Boston hockey is mostly about fundamental hockey.
We will dump the puck into your zone to keep it away from our goal. We will forecheck ferociously to make it as hard as possible to get the puck out of your own zone. We will build a defensive wall around our goaltender. And then, in those rare times when everything breaks down, our spectacular goaltender will stop you.
In Bruins hockey, goals are like the planets aligning – they come only rarely and usually only with a symphonic coincidence of fortuitous circumstances. In Bruins hockey, a team with no clear superstar can become far more than the sum of its parts.
So the Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011. So they are in the Stanley Cup final this year.
Yet in the Blackhawks, the Bruins have met a team that can play "Bruins hockey" – fundamentally sound, physically taxing, emotionally draining – yet is more talented than they are. The result, as became clear Saturday, is that no matter how long the two teams play, the Blackhawks will always create more and more dangerous scoring chances when they are at their best.
The Maple Leafs are not as talented as the Blackhawks. But they are young and fast. At times against the Maple Leafs, the Bruins played as though someone had pulled the fire alarm.
Though not as pronounced Saturday, the same impression was inescapable. For all their gristle and hustle, the Bruins could not cope with the Blackhawks' skating.
After spending much of the series flitting about on the edges of the action, Blackhawk Patrick Kane has figured out that it is not his muscle but his movement that is needed. He scored two goals Saturday by ceaselessly seeking the empty patches of ice near the goal that open and close with the speed of a camera shutter.
There's never been much of a doubt that the Blackhawks could put together a game like Game 5. Consider that they are up 3-2 in the series despite the fact that Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask has been guiltless in virtually all of the Blackhawks' 14 goals. That is a testament to the Blackhawks' ability to create offensive chances.
This is not to say that the Blackhawks must win the series. Teams don't always play at their best. Moreover, as solid as Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford has been at times, his glove has been a weakness; Rask could still steal a game or two for the Bruins.
But on Saturday, it was clear: The Blackhawks took Bruins hockey to another level.