- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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CHICAGO -- Stan Mikita was grinning ear to ear as he walked the United Center hallways Sunday afternoon. His beloved Chicago Blackhawks are off to their first Stanley Cup finals in 18 years.
Finally, the Hockey Hall of Famer hoped, he might welcome new champions into the Blackhawks fold 49 years after he helped deliver the last Stanley Cup to this Original Six city.
"We are hoping that the drought ends, yes," Mikita told ESPN.com. "I'm a little sick and tired of telling people about '61 and people saying they weren't even born. Well I was and I really enjoyed it, but it's time."
It seems hardly important whether it's the Philadelphia Flyers or Montreal Canadiens standing in the Hawks' way. The 2010 team of destiny appears to be the Blackhawks, whose rapid rise from doormat to Cup favorite is breathtaking.
"When I think back to the way things started five years ago in Chicago to where we are now, I don't think I [could have] predicted that," Patrick Sharp said after Sunday's 4-2 win, which capped a series sweep over San Jose in the Western Conference finals. "A lot of hard work, a lot of reasons why we're there, [and] hopefully we've got a lot left in the tank here in the finals."
What have they learned during this journey?
"That there's nothing we can't do," said Hawks captain Jonathan Toews. "The only thing stopping us is ourselves. We're a talented group, but we're working hard and we're playing the right way. You've seen a lot of talented teams go down, especially in the Eastern Conference. It's tough when you have a target on your back like that, but we work hard and we play the right way and that's when you get bounces."
Or, you can just accept linemate Patrick Kane's reasoning.
"I don't know, I think it's almost like we're too young and stupid to know any better," Kane said.
Kane and Toews got assists as Dustin Byfuglien yet again scored the winner with 5:55 remaining in the third period Sunday, and the delirious United Center crowd celebrated a four-game sweep in the Western Conference finals against a very good Sharks team.
"You got to give Chicago credit, they're a hell of a team," said Sharks coach Todd McLellan. "They seem very destined right now. They have a goaltender that's on fire. They're getting scoring, not necessarily from their superstars, [and] I mean that with all due respect to the Byfugliens, the [Dave] Bollands, those type of players. They're doing the things they need to do to win. They certainly deserved the series."
A year ago, the young Blackhawks were knocked out of the conference finals by their big brother in Detroit. It was a ruthless lesson, one that stung, but also proved to be constructive. Next time, they thought, it would be different.
"I think last year, seeing the Pittsburgh Penguins win it, a very comparable team to us, against a team like Detroit, when it looked like it was over halfway through that series, they just kept kicking," said Toews, the runaway favorite at this point to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. "And it made me think, there's no reason we can't do that here.
"We're a young team, but we're here to win it."
That's why Toews didn't touch the Clarence Campbell Trophy when it was awarded to the team by NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly on Sunday.
"It has nothing to do with superstition. It's just not what we're here for," said Toews.
Eighteen years ago, Chris Chelios, Ed Belfour and Jeremy Roenick led a hard-working, blue-collar Hawks team to a Cup finals series against Pittsburgh that wouldn't last very long. Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis and the Pens quickly dusted off the Hawks in four straight to capture their second consecutive Stanley Cup. It was an offensively talented Penguins team that played a creative game. Eighteen years later, it's the Hawks who will enter the Cup finals as the offensive juggernaut, the one loaded with weapons on three different lines.
It's Chicago's Cup to lose, and there's a city waiting to explode after nearly half a century without Lord Stanley.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.