Let’s leave the asterisks for baseball.
The talk of such typographical tripe is an unfortunate inevitability whenever we reach the peak of a strike-shortened sports season. It began in earnest after the 1994-95 NHL lockout, which lasted until 10 days after New Year’s, and wound up reducing the schedule to 48 games. One team, Detroit, reached 70 points that season, and the Red Wings buzzed through the Western Conference playoffs, dropping only two games en route to the Stanley Cup finals.
A funny thing happened on the way to planning a parade down Woodward Avenue in the Motor City, though. Detroit not only lost in the Cup finals but was embarrassed, scoring seven goals in a four-game sweep at the hands of a New Jersey team that finished fifth in the East.
A fluke, it was called. A sham. A series that was the impetus for the often unwatchable hockey that permeated the league for the next decade due to the Devils’ use of the neutral-zone trap.
OK. So that last part is basically true.
But did the fact that the league shaved 36 games – the NHL played 84-game seasons prior to the lockout, not the 82 we’re now used to – off its schedule diminish New Jersey’s accomplishment? Of course not. Vile as their low-scoring, trapping tendencies were to hockey purists, the Devils went on to participate in three more finals – winning two – before Gary Bettman and his minions wiped out the entire 2004-05 season because of a work stoppage.
The same was said of the Spurs’ 1999 NBA title, which came after a lockout that reduced that season’s slate to 50 games. Why does San Antonio’s championship get such ridicule? Because it beat the eighth-seeded Knicks to win the NBA title. As if the Spurs had a say in which team they’d see in the Finals.
You know what San Antonio did control? Itself. The Spurs won 37 games in the regular season, tied for the league’s best record and the equivalent to a 61-win team in a normal year. They had a point differential of plus-8.1, dwarfing the rest of the NBA with a mark that’s still the seventh-best of the post-Jordan era. Then they lost just two games in the playoffs. Only six other teams since 1970 have waltzed through the postseason with such ease.
They’ve been alright ever since, too. Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich have combined for three more titles, and were a Ray Allen miss away from a fourth just a week ago. But let’s be sure to question the validity of that first one because they missed the chance to go 23-9 in those 32 regular-season games they missed out on and faced a gassed and overmatched Knicks team to cap their run.
Speaking of Mr. Allen’s current club, there were a few bitter folks out there who attempted to knock the Heat last season for winning a title after a lockout that cost the NBA a whopping 16 regular-season contests. What, would LeBron James have been too drained from a mid-December game in Toronto to have dropped 45 on Boston in that Game 6 demolition in the East finals? Miami, with Allen in tow this time, backed up that farcical-in-the-eyes-of-the-crazy title by winning a second straight ring last week.
This is all building to what the city of Chicago is still buzzing about from last night. The Blackhawks scored twice in 17 seconds in the final 1:16 to turn what looked like a certain ticket to Game 7 at the United Center into their second Stanley Cup win in four years.
You know the story by now. Bettman was involved. A lockout nearly cost the league a full season for the second time in under a decade, a proposition that would have been grim for a niche sport that tends to perpetually take one step forward and two steps back in the PR department. Training camp lasted about as long as it takes to make a proper pot roast. The league played as many preseason games as there are children sired by Kanye and birthed by Kim that aren’t named after a compass point. There were 48 games instead of 82.
And just like with our three examples from above, anyone denigrating the Blackhawks’ accomplishments needs to be chained to a couch and forced to watch a marathon of Naked and Afraid. They won exactly three-quarters of their games, 18 at home and 18 on the road. They allowed the fewest goals and scored the second-most. They obliterated an NHL record by not losing for the first TWENTY-FOUR games of the season, and had they had a full season of hockey, were right on pace to challenge the 1976-77 Canadiens’ record of 132 points.
All of those accomplishments, we know, would have meant essentially nothing to Chicago had it not followed through by skating with the Cup, but that’s exactly what it did. Rally from a 3-1 series deficit against Detroit? Check. Temporarily turn 2012 Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick from postseason god to just another goalie? Did it. Win two overtime games and then deliver perhaps the wildest rally in finals history to clinch the Cup, scoring as many goals in 17 seconds on Tuukka Rask as the Joanie Cunningham lookalike had given up in four games against Pittsburgh? Yep, that happened too.
“We’ve accomplished a lot as a team with the regular-season streak and President’s Trophy,” Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp told the Chicago Tribune before the Cup finals on the notion of asterisks. “It doesn’t matter to me or my teammates about the 48 games.”
Asterisks can have a place in sports. Remember the Soviet Union’s still-disputed gold-medal game win over the United States in 1972? The one the US still won’t accepts its medals for? Asterisk. Barry Bonds’ home run record? Asterisk. The end of Armando Galaragga’s perfect game that Jim Joyce decided to miss for a mid-evening nap? Asterisk. Sam Cassell’s status as the ugliest man in the NBA once Chris Kaman entered the league? Asterisk.
Just don’t try slapping one of those suckers on what the Blackhawks accomplished. Being the best team in the regular season and the best team in the postseason gets your name a spot on this.
No asterisk necessary.