Hawks' run goes according to plan
Chicago weathered storms of season and is confident it's playing best at right time
CHICAGO -- Captain Serious isn't one for extemporaneous quotations. But when it comes to predictions, he is certainly efficient.
Jonathan Toews, the fresh-faced Olympic champion who wears the C on his sweater, was curt when asked about the Nashville Predators, the Blackhawks' first-round playoff opponent in a series that begins Friday at the United Center.
"It doesn't really matter who we play in the first round," Toews said, with a hint of playoff whiskers already in place. "It's how we play."
We've seen what happens when the Blackhawks play bad, and the memory is still fresh as a Zamboni-slick rink. After a 6-7-2 post-Olympic malaise, the Hawks have stormed back in April, and won six in a row before dropping a 3-2 overtime game to the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday to finish the regular season.
A home loss to their bitter rivals was relatively tough to swallow, because the Hawks had a chance to clinch home-ice advantage over everyone but the Eastern Conference champion Washington Capitals. Instead, the San Jose Sharks take the No. 1 seed by one point, 113-112. But there is no time to dwell on it. It's disposable, like the rest of a wildly successful regular season.
"We've waited a long time for the playoffs to start," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "We had a good season, but now we're excited to start the second season."
Just like the first season, Chicago isn't sneaking up on anyone in the second. And that's the biggest change from the magical spring of 2009, when the Hawks took a 6-0-1 finish (including wins over Detroit in the last two games) to a series against Calgary. The marketing wizards on Madison might as well sell a jersey sponsorship to Target, because that's what the Hawks will be in the first two rounds.
"What did we have, 112 points?" Patrick Kane said. "That's a lot of points and a lot of wins, too. We won't surprise anyone if we get to the same position we were at last year. Those are expectations we have to face and we're happy with that. We're happy that other teams and media and fans and everyone think we should win. We've got to play with those expectations."
Doubts began to surface after the Olympics when the team failed to make a trade to bolster the goaltending tandem of Cristobal Huet and Antti Niemi. It bubbled over as they had a losing month. But all is pretty much right going into Friday's opener.
The biggest question mark this season has been the goaltending. And Niemi, with no playoff experience to his name, will be the man after starting the last nine games and going 6-2-1 since March 28. He has won some big games this month, and this season overall, so he should be ready for his first playoff workload, Quenneville said.
We won't surprise anyone if we get to the same position we were at last year. Those are expectations we have to face and we're happy with that. We're happy that other teams and media and fans and everyone think we should win. We've got to play with those expectations.” -- Patrick Kane
"He took charge there, and looked comfortable in the net," Quenneville said. "A lot of big games and got some momentum, got rolling. In back-to-back games, he looked comfortable in the net. In important games he took charge, and that's what we were looking for."
Niemi faced only 21 shots Sunday, and just two in nearly four minutes of penalty-kill situations. The fact that Hawks goalies face fewer shots than most have negated their save percentage. But during their recent winning streak, Niemi has won three games facing more than 30 shots. He's likely to face a barrage almost every game and there is no precedent for how he will do in this situation. But there will be time to worry about that later.
The silver lining in this loss was the Hawks' first goal came via the power play, and took just 11 seconds for Dave Bolland to knock in the rebound of a Toews shot. The Blackhawks came into the game tied for 16th in power-play scoring percentage at 17.6, and 29th at home with 13.6 percent. That makes two straight games with a power-play goal, ending a seven-game drought. One more game, and it's officially a streak. Chicago failed on the other three, though nearly scoring on a Toews shot near the end of regulation.
But Sunday's loss will be tossed away much like the anger directed at Kane last summer for his Buffalo arrest. This is a team that knows it's fallible, but feels invincible.
"I don't think anyone is overconfident here at all," Kane said. "We had a good end to the season. We know we had our slump, and it's something that was good to get out of the way, so you don't have to go through it again."
When the Hawks hit that rough patch in mid-March, there was genuine concern about dwindling time to tighten up their act. But no one was panicked that the team was headed into a spring swoon.
"We weren't concerned because we went through the same thing last year," Toews said, likely referring to the team's 1-5-2 mark from March 7-20 in 2009. "We knew we were going to battle our way out of it. Good teams do. We're here now and ready for our best hockey in the first round."
The coaching staff was probably a little more perked up in March, when the Hawks lost three straight games twice, including an overtime loss to Washington, where they lost Brian Campbell to a nasty Alex Ovechkin hit.
"We had a tough little stretch," Quenneville said. "That certainly got our attention. We lost three in a row and didn't play well and didn't have the same energy. We captured our identity and how we have to play to be successful."
Based on their play this season, the Hawks have every right to get a little cocky. Maybe last month humbled them a bit. But maybe they shouldn't be reticent. Cocky is good. Chicago had a great chance to clinch the top seed in the Western Conference and came from behind to tie the Red Wings in the third period, showing some inner resolve.
Only the Capitals and Sharks have better records, making optimism more prevalent than a "Detroit Sucks" chant at the Madhouse on Madison, and more ubiquitous than a former Blackhawk being feted on a pregame red carpet.
The Blackhawks lived up to their hype this season, putting in a championship-caliber run. Can they rachet it up another notch to get past Nashville and start their push to the Stanley Cup when only a Cup finals appearance will satiate rapidly expanding expectations?
As Toews said, it's all up to them. Just like it should be for a team that wants its next celebration to be about the present, rather than another one glorifying the past.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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