Here we are, Chicago Blackhawks fans, at the critical midway point in these playoffs. Our beloved Hawks have silenced the Note and tamed the Wild. But it sure didn’t come easy.
Not that anyone expected it to be a total cakewalk. Although the regular season has limited use in predicting playoff success, there were likely more than a few fans who looked at our records against the first two opponents with at least a modicum of concern.
That concern was amplified after losing the first two playoff games in overtime. But when the chips were down, the Big Guns for the Chicago Blackhawks were able to turn things around.
In the first series against the St. Louis Blues, after dropping the first two away games in overtime, the Hawks managed to regroup and never looked back. Goalie Corey Crawford made good on his vow to be better, and stood tall in Game 3 to get not only the win but the shutout. Captain Jonathan Toews scored the early goal for the Hawks, with Marcus Kruger potting an empty net goal in the fading seconds of regulation. Game 4 was a return to overtime – a period that has caused Hawks fans considerable heartache during the regular season.
But then something happened – Patrick Kane emerged from his relative scoring drought and returned to his true form as the clutch playoff guy we all know and love, beating Blues goalie Ryan Miller to the net for the win. Casting aside any doubt that these playoffs would indeed be the Tazer-and-Kaner Show, Toews took his turn in the Overtime Hero role to pick up another win in Game 5. And in the sixth and final game, the team showed no mercy in a dominant 5-1 coup de grâce.
In the second-round against the Minnesota Wild, in part thanks to home-ice advantage, things certainly started better. But then the Hawks quickly found themselves with the shoe on the other foot, and in a similar position as the Blues had been just one round earlier after Game 4. That aspect alone could have taken the wind out of the sails of a lesser team. But not the battle-hardened Blackhawks. Even after their own fans have booed them.
With a series lead on the line and being tied 1-1 heading into the third period, Toews delivered a huge check on Wild centerman Mikael Granlund before scoring on a rebound. Not to be outdone, Kane capitalized on a wacky bounce to seal the deal in Game 6 – yet another OT thriller.
The secret to the Blackhawks’ success is really no secret: it’s the leadership qualities in key players like Toews and Kane who know when to turn it up a notch, or several, and lead the charge. It energizes players that have otherwise stumbled during the regular season, like Bryan Bickell, who now has a whopping 9 points (6G, 3A) in 12 playoff games this year. By comparison, he had 15 points in 59 games during the regular season. Crawford has also kicked it into higher gear, and is a huge reason the Hawks are moving ahead to the Western Conference Finals. Whereas he only had so-so stats during the regular season (.917 SV%, 2.26 GAA, 2 SO in 59 games), his star has shone brightly in the postseason: .931 SV%, 1.97 GAA, 1 SO in 12 games.
The next round – the Western Conference Finals – puts an interesting twist on these playoffs. The Hawks’ opponents will not be decided until tonight, with Game 7 between the Anaheim Ducks and the Los Angeles Kings. Ever since the Hawks cemented a spot in the WCF, fans have debated about which team is “better” for another chance to move onto the Stanley Cup Finals. The real answer, of course, is both and neither. Whichever team the Hawks face, and whether they have home-ice advantage or not, it will be a tall order to advance against either team.
But that is an order that the Blackhawks have showed time and again that they can fulfill. Game 1 is Sunday. Bring it on, Cali! Go Hawks!