There is a precedent for an NHL team winning a Stanley Cup with its best player watching from the bench, and it happened not so long ago. It was 2009, when the Pittsburgh Penguins earned the one and only Stanley Cup of the Sidney Crosby era in a seventh-game thriller over the Detroit Red Wings, a notable event in which Crosby suffered a knee injury early on a hit by Johan Franzen and could only watch and cheer, not play.
It was left to Jordan Staal to pick up Crosby's minutes and Max Talbot to score twice, and the Penguins won without him, because it was just the one game and because when a team is just one game away from the Stanley Cup, anybody can emerge as the hero (hello Mike Rupp!).
So Monday night, the Stanley Cup will be waiting in the wings for the Chicago Blackhawks, who have a chance to win it for the second time in four years, even as Chicago's captain, Jonathan Toews, and Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins are questionable for the game because of injuries sustained Saturday in a 3-1 Blackhawks victory.
Thankfully, hockey is still the ultimate team sport and there is a long and storied history of players picking each other up in the short term. Motivation will not be lacking when these two teams face off at the TD Garden, in what could be the denouement of the NHL's twisting, turning 2012-13 season.
But if going out with a bang is what's needed to salvage a year that started four months late because of the lockout, then that's exactly what's happening. They are five games into the series; two have been classics, and Saturday's came close as well. Even as the injury toll mounts, these are high-paced, hard-fought games, with a higher entertainment quotient than, say, last year's New Jersey Devils-Los Angeles Kings series.
For anyone interested simply in the spectacle of hockey, they are putting on a compelling show, even if the tank is edging toward empty for some of the heavy-minute players, such as the Bruins' Zdeno Chara.
Toews was injured in the second period of Saturday's game, likely but not conclusively on a hit from Bruins defenceman Johnny Boychuk (because he'd been taking a major beating from all comers before Boychuk landed a hit to the back of his head). For someone with his concussion history, there has to be a concern there, though coach Joel Quenneville wouldn't rule Toews out Sunday and sounded an optimistic note.
"Johnny is doing much better today," Quenneville said. "He's progressed. We're optimistic that he might be playing tomorrow night."
Bruins coach Claude Julien was similarly vague about Bergeron's condition, saying he was day-to-day with an undisclosed "body" injury – nice variation there – and they would re-evaluate his health Monday. For a player probably leading the Conn Smythe Trophy race on the Bruins' side because of all the big goals he's scored in the playoffs, Bergeron's absence would be a major loss.
It's worth noting that even if one or both get in, that is not the same thing as having one or both playing to their full abilities, in robust health. Right now, Nathan Horton is playing with a shoulder that keeps dislocating, and Marian Hossa is labouring with an undisclosed injury. Physically, they are in the lineup, but making nowhere near the contribution they could if they were healthy.
Accordingly, it will fall to the likes of Tyler Seguin on the Bruins, and Marcus Kruger, Andrew Shaw or David Bolland on the Blackhawks to step up and play a more significant role. It wasn't clear why Julien didn't move Seguin into Bergeron's spot, given that he'd been a top-six forward for much of the year, or before Jaromir Jagr arrived. Instead, it was the new guy, Carl Soderberg, who got those minutes, and predictably the line looked wildly out of sync.
The Bruins had a run of bad luck with injuries to defencemen earlier in the playoffs, but Torey Krug, Matt Bartkowski and Dougie Hamilton stepped up until Andrew Ference and Dennis Seidenberg could get back.
So the war of attrition continues. There is usually a last-man standing sort of vibe to the playoffs anyway, and this year is really no different.
"I'm going to be honest here," Julien said. "I've never been a coach to push guys to play, because if they don't want to, I don't want them in my lineup. So the guys that you see in our lineup are guys that want to play. This is where they deserve a lot of credit, because, if they can and if medically they're cleared and they want to, I'm not going to hold them back."
You can be sure both Toews and Bergeron will do whatever they can to talk their way into the lineup. Either way, an epic series is coming to an epic conclusion with or without them. It's really just what the doctor ordered.