The Blackhawks had a 2.6 percent chance at making the Stanley Cup Playoffs on March 11. One day later, the NHL put its season on pause because of the COVID-19 pandemic and it remained that way for 142 days.
Unprecedented circumstances gave the Blackhawks new life in a 24-team tournament that included a five-game play-in series, where they snuck in as the No. 12 seed in the Western Conference. They weren't going to apologize for it then and they won't now.
On Friday, the Blackhawks eliminated the Edmonton Oilers in four games to punch their ticket to the dance for the first time since the 2016-17 season. It was their first postseason series win since the 2015 Stanley Cup Final.
"Great to end the series," head coach Jeremy Colliton said following a 3-2 win in Game 4. "Obviously it was a big challenge facing an excellent team with as good of players as you're going to find in the league. But really proud of how we competed. We know we can play better, but we found a way to win."
It’s been a tough past few seasons for the Blackhawks, who had set a Stanley Cup or bust standard for a decade. They accomplished that feat three times and reached the Conference Final two others during the dynasty era.
The Blackhawks heard the outside criticism after missing out on the postseason in back-to-back seasons following a nine-year playoff streak. They just chose not to listen to it.
"There's always going to be maybe unwarranted praise and criticism," Toews said. "I think our core group has done a good job of not listening to either. You miss the playoffs for a couple years, you're bound to have people come down on you a little bit. I don't think any of that's fazed us. We were pretty eager to get this chance and show what we can do.”
The Blackhawks had nothing to lose going into the qualifying round. They weren't expected to make the playoffs had the season ended normally, so a series win would have been a bonus and valuable experience for their younger players. And if they lost, the Blackhawks would've gotten a 12.5 percent chance at landing the No. 1 overall pick, which will now go to the Oilers.
But put that in the rearview mirror, Chicago. The Blackhawks have their eyes on something else.
"The real fun begins,” Toews said. “We worked pretty hard in this series to beat a good team and we're gonna have to dig deep to keep finding better and better the next one.“