- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
- 0 Shares
CHICAGO -- The Blackhawks didn't get to the brink of a Stanley Cup finals appearance by strength of reputation and rakish charm and by simply carrying the weight of frequently met expectations. Even with the Stanley Cup finals as the only acceptable end since the season's inception, the playoffs didn't just start against San Jose.
The famous saying "the past is prologue" is just another way to say the Hawks earned this enviable status by dealing with and defeating Nashville and Vancouver.
"We didn't get here by nothing," Jonathan Toews said after the Blackhawks' wildly exciting 3-2 win over San Jose on Friday night. "We worked hard."
Hey folks, it's not Shakespeare. It's just Toews, the bard of the postseason.
This Chicago team earned its 3-0 series lead in the Western Conference finals with sweat equity built from not only a laborious regular season, but also, and perhaps more importantly, by winning two hard-fought series to get here.
"Good, hard work always seems to pay off at the end," said Dustin Byfuglien, who scored in overtime, continuing his rise from fan favorite to legitimate playoff folk hero.
As I watched this tighter-than-an-Ice-Crew-uniform game unfold, I had flashbacks to the end of the regular season, those hazy post-Olympic games in which everything was a little off and everyone was more than a little worried. I thought about the first round against Nashville and how close all the expectations came to being unfulfilled.
I thought about that first game against Vancouver and a troubling streak of opening-night jitters, and how two home losses stretched the series to a tiring six games.
But those thoughts didn't linger, because the Blackhawks persevered through their trials like mythical warriors (yes, I'm talking about the 2005 White Sox, which seem to be like a fictional memory these days), and after taking that 2-0 lead in San Jose, I didn't have a doubt that the Hawks would win this one too.
OK, maybe I had a few doubts, but not as many as usual.
The question I kept asking myself and a couple sweaty Canadians: Did the first two rounds help forge a Stanley Cup champion? Or at least a Western Conference champion?
"We don't think about it much, to be honest with you," John Madden said, killing my postgame reverie. "We come to the rink and try to win hockey games. I know it sounds simple and stupid, but that's the way you've got to approach it. You can't sit back and start thinking about, 'How are we doing this?' Not right now. When this is all over, good or bad, we'll look back at some situations and reminisce on them, or look down on them. So we're going to play hockey and keep things simple."
Madden, a Stanley Cup veteran who wears his career on his well-lined face, makes a lot of sense. But teammate Patrick Sharp disagreed slightly, noting the first two rounds "definitely" helped put this team on a path to its destiny: a return to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1992.
"It's better to peak now than at the All-Star break or at the end of the season," Sharp said. "I hope we're getting better. We've got more hockey to play."
One reason the Hawks are playing their best hockey is the strength of their goaltender, which proves the playoff axiom correct. Certainly, Antti Niemi will never be looked at with skeptical eyes. He's proved to be a playoff goalie and there's no reason to think he won't keep playing this well in the next round.
"If they didn't know him before, they know him now," Brian Campbell said after Niemi made 44 saves in a spectacular game. Niemi made 17 saves in the third period as the Hawks killed three penalties, and he continued to shine in overtime.
"He's just Antti," Madden said. "I've never seen a goalie compete like that before."
"You can use any adjective or superlative to describe him," coach Joel Quenneville said. "Great or spectacular, it's deserving."
After the game, Versus reporter Charissa Thompson tweeted that Toews said to her, "We made that harder than it needed to be." Perhaps he was speaking on the Hawks' 2-1 lead in the third period, before Patrick Marleau tied it with 4:23 to go.
In a lot of ways, that describes these playoffs perfectly: Harder than it needed to be. But it's a good thing. For the first two weeks of the playoffs, the Blackhawks made it hard on everyone: themselves, their fans and Quenneville's remaining black hairs.
But those days are over. They're simply prologue now, important when writing the still-developing history of this team, but not indicative of any possible trouble in the Stanley Cup finals.
And yeah, I'm guaranteeing the Hawks win this series. There's a better chance Quenneville loses a mustache-growing competition to Kane than the Sharks do of winning four straight.
From Niemi to Byfuglien to Toews, who had two assists and set a team record by notching a point in 12 straight playoff games, breaking Stan Mikita's record from 1962, the Blackhawks were dripping with great performances in Game 3, one that fans will remember for a lifetime -- or at least until Sunday's Game 4.
"They say the fourth win in a playoff series is the hardest to get," Sharp said. "We expect that to be the case Sunday."
Because in the playoffs, every game is just a prologue until there are no more games left.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com
The Blackhawks evolved into a championship-caliber squad at a gradual pace.