Hawks thrive again on adversity
Facing rowdy crowd, no power plays and relentless Sharks, Chicago won Game 1
They're calling this a threshold moment in San Jose, meaning that with every loss we can expect Sharks fans to start circling and the demons to start whispering and the other team to appear as loose and relaxed and lightning quick, as the Blackhawks did Sunday in their 2-1 victory in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.
The Hawks, of course, have their own threshold to cross and their own contract issues looming. But that's perhaps the most impressive quality about them. They seem to thrive on it.
Shrugging off one of the toughest home stadiums to play in, they won their sixth consecutive road game despite their five trips to the penalty box (none for the Sharks) and a whopping 45 shots fired at rookie goalie Antti Niemi.
"One of [my] best [games] for sure," said Niemi, who, not coincidentally, seems to get asked that question after every Hawks victory.
It was Niemi's first game against the Sharks, and if he was any calmer under pressure, they'd have to administer smelling salts. He's been so solid this postseason that his teammates are beginning to sound annoyed when reporters even ask about him.
"He has gotten better and better as the playoffs have gone along," said Hawks captain Jonathan Toews. "Everyone still wants to talk about him and throw even more pressure his way, but it doesn't really matter what's being said, we're playing hard in front of him, and he knows what he's capable of, so to him, it's no big deal. He's just going to get ready and prepare to do it again in a couple of days."
Save for a few trips, literally, in back of the net, Niemi was spectacular, his greatest moment coming late in the second period with a sprawling save with his left glove to deny a power-play goal for Ryane Clowe.
"He really saved our butts sometimes," Brent Seabrook said.
He saved their butts a number of times, making a solid Hawks' penalty-kill effort look that much better.
The Sharks controlled the action early, putting to rest any thoughts they would be rusty after a week off between series. Jason Demers scored on the second of three San Jose power plays with a 48-foot wrist shot that bounced off the crossbar, and quickly came the stat that the Sharks were 4-0 this postseason when they scored first.
But the Hawks weren't fazed by that any more than they were from the four straight Game 1 playoff losses that preceded this series. As young as they are, experience is now on their side, both from the Olympic Games that were supposed to sap six of their players, to their loss to Detroit in last year's conference finals.
"Sometimes you just have to take a deep breath and not be overwhelmed by the pressure," Toews said. "We survived a couple storms, came back and got them on their heels a little bit in the second and third. When they score a goal or have a couple shifts all over the puck and they're controlling the puck for the most part, you just gotta relax. When things don't go your way, don't get too depressed, don't get too down, there's always a way out of it."
On the other side, the Sharks have had the second-best record in the NHL the last five seasons but haven't been past the second round during that span (losing in the first round last postseason), and you get that now-or-never vibe from them.
Of course, this is not to say this series still doesn't go seven games. While the Hawks looked faster, the Sharks aren't getting any smaller. But switching his lines throughout, Hawks coach Joel Quenneville did a great job of keeping San Jose off-balance -- and also, evidently, the officials who incorrectly put Kris Versteeg, rather than Dave Bolland, in the penalty box toward the end of regulation.
Versteeg was still giggling about it afterward as the mistake left Bolland, one of the Hawks' best penalty killers, on the ice for the final 54 seconds.
"You just go to box and hope they don't score because holy crap, my heart was pounding out of my chest," Versteeg said.
Quenneville's magic also put Dustin Byfuglien in the right spot to score the game winner off a Patrick Kane assist with 6:45 left in the third. That negated the fact that Byfuglien was not quite the force that was anticipated in front of Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov.
"They did a very good job," Byfuglien said. "They got some veteran guys back there that know how to play in front and play often. We didn't really seem to be getting in front and controlling as much as we had the puck in Vancouver."
Nevertheless, at the end of a terrific game, the momentum shift was with a cool Hawks team that would like to hold on as long as possible.
"We're playing simple hockey," said Patrick Sharp, whose second-period goal tied the game at 1. "This is not an easy building to play in, but I thought everyone contributed again just like our final game in Vancouver. If we could put our finger on it, we would. But if we can play like this at home [in Games 3 and 4 on Friday and Sunday], we should be OK."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.