Keep the change
Blackhawks adapt, regain confidence in Game 2 victory over Nashville
CHICAGO -- It was exactly what the Blackhawks needed, in more ways than one: Patrick Kane with the puck, a three-on-one advantage, and what do you know, a little open ice in front of him.
Kane's third-period goal Sunday night gave the Hawks a 2-0 lead and some breathing room. It was also a glimpse of Blackhawks hockey played within a tempo firmly established by Nashville. And like many a great country ballad, upbeat it is not.
But upbeat are the Hawks as they head into enemy territory with a 2-0 victory and a 1-1 tie in the best-of-seven first-round series.
If the Hawks were better in Game 2, and they were, then they also emerge wiser in this postseason of great expectations. And surely they are more confident in the knowledge that they can succeed not only by outskating their opponents when necessary, but also by slowing down and outsmarting them.
"We have guys who love to score goals and love to make plays, so yeah, it's tough to make some really simple plays," said center Jonathan Toews, who assisted on a second-period power-play goal by Bolland. "Sometimes you can take a chance and make pretty plays, but that's not what wins you games this time of year, and that's the most important thing to us."
Agonizing as it was to watch Friday's 4-1 Game 1 loss, it had to be that much harder for Hawks fans to watch the first two periods of Game 2 inch along, the lone early bright spot wiped out when Bolland's first-period shot into the net was disallowed because it came after the whistle.
This night, however, was a bit different, with the re-teaming of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook on defense helping push the puck up the ice, Brent Sopel and Niklas Hjalmarsson throwing various body parts on seven of 13 blocked shots, and a more aggressive, forechecking Hawks team on the Nashville end. If it appeared the Hawks were sloppy at times with their passing early on, it was what the aptly named Predators do, and the Hawks simply bided their time.
While Nashville waited for the Hawks to make mistakes, the Hawks responded by not making many. Through two periods, the Hawks held a commanding 26-12 advantage in shots on goal but had only a 1-0 lead, the same margin they held Friday going into the third. But again, if Hawks fans were anxious, their team was not.
"We wanted to control our own fate going into the third period and not leave it up to crappy bounces," Toews said, referring to the third-period Nashville goal in Game 1 that even the Predators termed fluky.
"I think in Game 1," Kane said, "maybe what we thought in here [is that] we wanted to try to play into our system and play the way we want to play a high-flying, up-tempo offense, and sometimes it's just not going to be that way, especially against teams like this.
"If you try to do it against them, there's going to be a lot of turnovers, a lot of break-ups and a lot of chances for them to go the other way. And they have enough skill and talent that they can capitalize on those opportunities. I think we played a lot more patient game tonight, a lot better. Overall, I think we had a lot more energy and excitement."
And ultimately, so too did the United Center.
"In Game 1, I think it was almost kind of nervous in the building, and tonight, everyone was excited, especially when you get that lead and the crowd goes nuts," Kane said. "It gives you chills down your spine, for sure."
The shutout victory was big for the Hawks and bigger for goalie Antti Niemi, who was clearly unshaken by two third-period goals in Game 1. Niemi had two terrific saves in particular early in the second, the first of which looked like a sure goal by Dustin Boyd averted by Niemi's quick reflexes and big right pad.
"Antti came off a game we were all disappointed in," Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said, "and it was a nice response by him."
Niemi notched the first playoff shutout for a Hawks goalie since Eddie Belfour in 1996, and the first shutout for a rookie in franchise history.
"A big bounce-back game after a bad-break last game," Kane said.
It was also a big game for Bolland, who scored his fifth career playoff goal following a season in which he was limited to just 39 games after back surgery. Bolland said a not-so-subtle pep talk by Quenneville spurred him Sunday.
"He pulled me in his office," Bolland said. "That's when I know something's wrong. I knew had to step it up. I wasn't playing my game. Some games I'm wandering off and not playing the way I used to play. I knew I had to play a little harder, a little tougher."
And his teammates, just a little slower.
"Tonight it was whatever it took to win, and that meant changing our game a little bit," Toews said. "But that's what it takes against this team. Keep playing smart, keep playing the right way, and that's how we're going to win games against this team."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.