Commentary

Can Hawks go from boys to men?

Updated: May 7, 2009, 10:02 AM ET
By Jerry Bonkowski | ESPNChicago.com

Down two games to one in their best-of-seven Western Conference semifinals, we'll now find out if the Blackhawks' youngsters can handle adversity like men.

Vancouver's 3-1 win Tuesday at the United Center put the Hawks, the youngest team in the league -- and playoffs -- on their heels heading into Game 4 on Thursday, once again on home ice.

"We're not happy," team captain Jonathan Toews said. "We've got to put this one behind us and get excited about the next one."

The frustration of slipping behind in the playoffs for the first time is especially telling on several of the team's youngest players, particularly Toews, defenseman and assistant captain Duncan Keith, defenseman Cam Barker and right winger Kris Versteeg.

At 20 years old, Toews is the youngest team captain in the league and third-youngest in NHL history, while Versteeg (22 years old) and Barker and Keith (both 23 years old) aren't all that much older. What the quartet lacks in playoff experience -- this is the first postseason action they have seen in their NHL careers -- can still be overcome by youthful doggedness and persistence, they all said.

All they need is to win Game 4 and it's a brand-new, best-of-three series all of a sudden.

"It's just another challenge we have to bounce back from," Keith said. "No one ever said you're going to win every game. We've got to bear down here Thursday night, no question about it."

One of the biggest elements thus far in this series is that Vancouver has gotten the early lead in each of the first three games. The Hawks were able to rally back from deficits of 3-0 and 2-0 to tie things up in the first two games, including going on to win Game 2 at Vancouver, but spotting the Canucks an early lead is one thing that must change if Chicago's youngsters are to advance to the next round.

"We seem to be a team where once we get the first [goal of the game], we get a little more fire in our game," Keith said. "We have to somehow find a way to get that first one or that first two."

During the regular season, the Hawks were 33-5-5 when they scored the first goal, but are just 2-2 during the playoffs. Vancouver, meanwhile, was 33-8-6 during the regular season and is now 5-1 in postseason play when it scores the first goal.

"We've got to start getting that first goal," Versteeg said. "They've gotten it every game now and they've gotten big leads. You're not going to come back on any team all the time in the NHL, let alone a team like [Vancouver].

"We've done it [come back] twice, but we can't keep shooting ourselves in the foot. We've got to come out and play hard from the start."

Barker spoke with the wisdom of a well-worn league veteran when asked to assess how his team has fallen behind an opponent for the first time in the first two playoff series this season.

"It's not acceptable," Barker said. "We've got to learn pretty quick or we're not going to hang around too long. You can't do that in this league. They're a good team and we're not going to come back every time. They have one of the best goaltenders in the league. We have to find a way to win. Even if you don't feel the best, you've got to find a way to win 1-0 or 2-1 and we didn't do that at all."

At the same time, Barker has a message to Blackhawks fans: Don't give up on the youngsters.

"Right now, [Vancouver is] on the high and we're down a little bit, but there's a lot of pride in this team and a lot of confidence," Barker said. "We're down in the series, but expect big things from us on Thursday."

Toews, who has two goals and five assists thus far in the first two playoff rounds, isn't ready to panic, preferring to consider Tuesday's loss as more of a blip or aberration rather than a sign of more bad news to come.

"Our confidence is still pretty high, absolutely," Toews said. "You can't let a game like this get to you. You just have to remind yourself it's about the things you do as a team. As soon as we get back to playing that way, we know the confidence and momentum are going to go back our way, and we're not worried about anything like that."

While Vancouver still needs two wins to capture the series, the youthful Hawks are not going to make it easier on the older Canucks.

"Thursday is definitely a must-win," Versteeg said. "It seems like every game in the playoffs is a must-win. It won't be our last game, but we have to think like it might be. We've got to come out, be desperate, have to be first on the puck and play our game.

"You don't go into any series thinking it's going to be a four-game sweep. We've got the guys in here and know we can do it and we're a confident group. I know we're young, but we know what we can do in here. We just need to regroup and work hard and come out with all guns blazing on Thursday. We've got a confident team and we're all confident we'll be back and ready to play on Thursday."

Jerry Bonkowski is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jerry Bonkowski | email

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Award-winning sportswriting veteran Jerry Bonkowski returns to ESPN, having previously served as NASCAR columnist/writer for ESPN.com from 2001 to 2004. A lifelong Chicago native, Jerry spent 15 years with USA Today, where he covered all sports -- with heavy emphasis on Chicago-area teams -- and the past 4½ years as National NASCAR Columnist with Yahoo! Sports.

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