Chicago's got game, a low-risk game
CHICAGO -- You want us to play that way to win? Fine, the Chicago Blackhawks answered Sunday night.
The Hawks sent an important message in their 2-0 victory over the Nashville Predators that evened their first-round NHL playoffs series at one game apiece: They can indeed dumb it down and get it done with a low-risk game.
It's not as much fun to watch, but it's the only way they'll beat the hard-working, disciplined Preds in this best-of-seven series. In Friday's 4-1 loss to Nashville, the Hawks stubbornly tried to stickhandle through a brick wall and paid for it.
"In Game 1, we wanted to try and play our system and play the way we wanted, maybe high-flying, up-tempo offense, and sometimes it's just not going to be that way, especially against teams like this," said Hawks star Patrick Kane, who scored his second goal in two games. "If you do it against them, there's going to be turnovers and break-ups and a lot of chances for them to go the other way. They've got enough skill and talent that they can capitalize on those opportunities. I think here in Game 2, we played a little bit more of a patient game."
On Sunday night, Hawks coach Joel Quenneville's marching orders were no doubt still echoing in his players' heads, and the Blackhawks waited for their openings and didn't try to force plays that weren't there.
"Going forward, we have to play that way from start to finish. We've got to be patient," said Quenneville. "You got to play with energy and you got to play with a purpose; but at the end of the day, manufacturing [chances] will be coming from being smart, being patient and putting the puck in safe areas."
It's not a natural game to play for a skilled player, and the Hawks are loaded with those. Just ask the Washington Capitals over in the Eastern Conference. But playoff hockey demands that even the most skilled teams hold back a little.
"We've got some very skilled guys, guys that can dance with the puck and do some pretty cool things," said star defenseman Brent Seabrook. "But in the playoffs, I think we learned this last year, that the simple, smart plays are always the best. If you want to win in the playoffs, you have to work and work the right way."
But it's not easy, said captain Jonathan Toews. The urge is to use your talent and entertain the fans.
"Obviously, we want to be aggressive and make plays, and sometimes we see those plays and it's not 100 percent and we got to make sure we just play patient and wait until it's the right time," said Toews. "Our timing was right tonight. We played a smarter game and that's why we won."
Another good sign for the Hawks was the play of rookie goalie Antti Niemi. He rebounded well from his ugly goal that changed the momentum in Game 1. He was rock solid Sunday night, and this time, it's a stop he made early in the second period that changed the game, a highlight-reel pad save on Dustin Boyd that seemed to give his teammates confidence.
"Antti came up with some critical saves early in that second and late in the game to preserve the win," said Quenneville.
In the bigger picture, Sunday's win, albeit a small sample size, could bode well for a Hawks team with Stanley Cup aspirations. Over the years, championship NHL teams have had the ability to adjust their game plan according to the opposition. The Detroit Red Wings have shown that versatility during their two-decade run, able to play in rugged, knock-down series and then turn around and play more of a finesse game in the next round. Whatever it takes.
"Any team that's gone a long way, they'll have to play all different kinds of ways," said veteran Hawks center John Madden, a Cup champion with the New Jersey Devils. "You look at some of the other series, there's some run-and-gunning going on. Here we are 1-0 going into the third period both games. They're low-scoring games. Every series is different and we have to find a way to play in each of these different types of hockey games. ...
"We learned a big lesson in the first game," added Madden. "We have to stay the course and be patient and things will come our way. But we've got a long way to go."
Yes, the Predators aren't going away. Despite the Game 2 loss, they played a decent road game and go home with the much-coveted road split. With the last line change, Preds coach Barry Trotz will be able to get more of the matchups he wants.
"[I would have liked] to get both, but we did get one and we're going back home," said Trotz. "Next game will be the most critical. It's a five-game series now and right across the NHL it's 1-1."
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.