Commentary

No place like the road

The Hawks and goalie Antti Niemi were fantastic on their three-game West Coast trip

Updated: May 19, 2010, 11:33 AM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

I'm not positive, but I think Carlos Zambrano was still a full-time starter the last time the Blackhawks were at home. Or maybe he was a newfound setup man. What is he now, anyway?

Sorry; the Blackhawks have been gone so long I've had to pay attention to the Cubs and their eight-figure relievers.

The Blackhawks have been gone so long, I thought their home games were blacked out again.

[+] EnlargeAntti Niemi
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireBlackhawks goaltender Antti Niemi celebrates with Dustin Byfuglien after his 25-save performance in Game 2.

The Blackhawks have been gone so long, I barely remember the words to that Amstel Light song, not to mention what Antti Niemi looks like.

Is he bearded? Still calmer than a Tibetan monk? I have no idea. The Hawks last played in Chicago on May 9, a 4-1 loss to Vancouver. They will host the Sharks on Friday, making it 11 days in between home games.

One thing's for sure: Niemi could paint his face and join the Road Warriors. Hawk, Animal and Antti?

Niemi stopped 25 shots in the Blackhawks' late-night 4-2 win over San Jose to go ahead 2-0 in the Western Conference finals. Niemi has evolved from a question mark to an exclamation point. During the season, his save percentage was deemed less impressive thanks to the low amount of shots he faced. That's not the case now. The Sharks got enough shots, as did the Canucks; they're just not converting.

"I don't think we underestimated him at all," Sharks forward Joe Thornton said. "We just haven't capitalized on our chances around the net."

Andrew Ladd gave Niemi an early lead with a wrister that embarrassed Evgeni Nabokov, and the Hawks got three more by setting up camp in front of San Jose's goal. Dustin Byfuglien, Jonathan Toews and Troy Brouwer were credited with goals on tip-ins. Duncan Keith, Patrick Kane and Niklas Hjalmarsson fired shots that became goals.

Kane, Byfuglien and Toews have formed a formidable line, especially with Toews and Byfuglien planting themselves in front of the net. Byfuglien, like Niemi, has matured into a playoff hero with his play at forward.

"Buff's a big body, and it's nice to go in and have that success when he's creating a lot of traffic and good screens in front of the goaltender," Toews said. "We'll take them any way we can get them."

"We won the battle in front of their net and our net," Hjalmarsson said. "That was the key to our win tonight."

Maybe it's best this team stays on the road, like traveling salesmen or pool hustlers, because the Blackhawks are turning in one of the all-time road performances in professional sports history. It's rivaled, in my hazy memory, by the 2006 Super Bowl champion Steelers and the 2008 New York Giants, both of which played all of their games away from home.

The White Sox clinched everything on the road in 2005: the playoffs, the division and all three series, including the World Series in Houston.

Since a 4-1 loss at Nashville put the team down 2-1 in the first round, the Hawks have won seven straight on the road, outscoring their three opponents 31-13 in that span, and tying the NHL record. Of the four teams that have won seven straight road games in one season, all but the 1999 Colorado Avalanche have won the Stanley Cup, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

"I guess we're just pumped up," Hjalmarsson said. "The crowd is screaming at us, cursing at us. I don't know what to say."

Adam Burish talked to ESPN Chicago's beat writer Jesse Rogers about passing time through the G-rated hotel hijinks of this team, which mostly consisted of a fight over Mario Kart. There's no doubt that the team-first isolation is a good thing, especially to a city that is crying more than Roberto Luongo for a championship.

"I think the guys are spending time together, they're hanging out with each other," coach Joel Quenneville said before Tuesday's game. "Kind of comparable to what they've been doing in Chicago. A lot of single guys spend time together, they go with each other for dinner, things like that. This is where we're at."

The team's 3-3 playoff record at the United Center doesn't make me confident about Friday's home game, nor a four-game sweep culminating in Sunday's game, but it's par for the course this season. Home teams are 37-41 in the playoffs, the second-worst winning percentage since 1987.

There has been some talk -- most of it humorous, some bizarrely serious -- that the home atmosphere at the UC is somehow wearying to the Hawks. That the raucous national anthem wears these guys down by geeking them up too early. If that's true …well, there's no way that's true. But I think everyone would rather discuss cockamamie theories than why the Hawks were eliminated early, which looked possible when the Predators nearly went up 3-1 before a last-second Kane goal tied it up. That game seems like a lifetime ago.

"We've been pretty consistent on the road," Quenneville said after the game. "We need to make sure we duplicate the way we play on the road."

But I think it's best to give the Blackhawks a rude welcome. If you see Patrick Sharp or Byfuglien, swallow your pride, tuck in your Blackhawks Red jersey and pretend they're Thornton or Patrick Marleau.

The Hawks are going to win this series whether or not they sweep their games at home. But wouldn't it be nice to celebrate in Chicago? Toews said the team is motivating itself to improve its mediocre home record in the postseason.

"We're really happy having a 2-0 lead," Toews said. "It's great for us. We're not used to this situation. We just want to take advantage of it and focus on what's to come."

"It was a long trip," Quenneville said. "It'll be nice to be home. But we don't want to be excited or satisfied."

Here's some free advice, Joel: Put these guys in a downtown hotel, throw in a dozen Wiis and unlimited movies, lock the doors and tape up a note for the cleaning crew: "Leave these guys alone. Two more games."

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.