Resurgent Hawks far from satisfied
The defending Stanely Cup champs are riding high for the first time in a long time
CHICAGO -- Winning, a brilliant philosopher once said, is more fun than losing.
And so it was a relatively happy Blackhawks' team de-planing its flight from Vancouver on Friday, confident, they said, but not cocky; resurgent but not satisfied; maybe still a little angry but not necessarily just at the Canucks.
As the team's stars awake from a slumber that came over them at various times during this up-and-down season and in the first three games of their first-round playoff series, defenseman Duncan Keith took aim at himself.
After a year in which Keith won an Olympic gold medal, the Norris Trophy and the Stanley Cup, only Jonathan Toews was in line for exactly the same king of all hangovers that Keith experienced. But all of their Hawks' teammates from last season could certainly relate.
"There are things I probably could have done differently in the summer to prepare for this season," said Keith, who still led the league in minutes played but saw his production drop off dramatically. "I like to work out and train a lot and feel good going into the season. I'm not making any excuses but I didn't feel excited coming back to start a season. Just being honest. I'm excited to play now."
After scoring four goals in the last three games, including two goals and two assists in Thursday night's 5-0 Game 5 victory over the Canucks, it's no wonder. Likewise, the entire team is arguably on its biggest high since last June as it prepares for Game 6 of the first-round playoff series Sunday at the United Center, trailing 3-2.
"It was a difficult season compared to last year, making the playoffs on the last day," Toews said. "Especially since the All-Star break, every single game you're battling against teams that are going up against you and trying to fight for a playoff spot at the same time.
"So we feel like we've been in a battle for a long time and now things are tilted our way and we're playing our best hockey of the year when it counts and every single guy is buying into that. They're all saying we have the potential to do something special if we keep going that way and we're not holding anything back."
The difference in Games 4 and 5, is not just a matter of pucks going into the net that had bounced off the post in the earlier losses, but a collective backbone that has stiffened and stood up to the surliness of their opponent.
Angry at Raffi Torres' cheap shot that knocked Keith's buddy and fellow defenseman Brent Seabrook out of the lineup Thursday, and finding the controlled aggression and discipline that helped make them Stanley Cup champs, the Hawks seem to have genuinely rattled the team with the best record in the regular season.
"Brent is a great teammate and a great friend of mine," Keith said. "Nobody in the lockerroom liked to see that hit and see one of our guys go down like that. Obviously, we used that as motivation but the biggest thing is just knowing we're in a bad spot and facing elimination and we haven't played our best hockey."
That'll do it too. Now the question is whether they can utilize that sense of urgency a few more times.
Marian Hossa, who also came to life with two goals and an assist in Game 5, stressed that the Hawks' traffic in the crease was key. But that was not the only thing.
"I don't know what exactly happened, but in Game 4 we started playing more as a unit of five," Hossa said. "And our power play became better and in the playoffs you need special teams. Our special teams are rising up."
Coach Joel Quenneville said he was just looking for a win, period, after riding the occasional highs and considerable lows of a defending Stanley Cup champion this season with patience and understanding.
"We were guarded going into the season about the hangover that can be expected," he said. "In talking to a lot of people who had been through it, it's real. And it took us some time to gather some team consistency."
Whether it is here for real now obviously remains to be seen.
"We're very confident but we're not letting it get away from us," Toews said. "It seems everywhere you go, people are talking like we're up in this series but we're not. We're still fighting for our lives and nothing's changing there, so we have to go the same way."
Only this time, said an always thinking Hawks' head coach, the fun part will be doing it with perhaps a secret ingredient on their side.
"The pressure was on us all year long," Quenneville said. "It's nice knowing that there's none right now."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.