Hawks need to find A-game -- fast

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Blackhawks have played seven games in the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs. And if they were truly honest with themselves, they'd look in the mirror and admit they've brought their A-game for only two or three of those matches.

That's the quagmire this highly talented yet equally frustrating club finds itself in more than a fortnight into what is supposed to be a trip to the Stanley Cup finals. At least, that's the expectation in this market.

There's no doubt in our mind the Hawks will rebound in grand style Monday night in Game 2; that's what they do when they're pressed up against the wall. In the first round, they followed up stinkers in Games 1 and 3 with better efforts, and the on-again, off-again commitment was good enough to polish off the offensively challenged Nashville Predators in six games.

The real crux of the Hawks' situation is whether they can will themselves to bring their best game night in, night out from now on. If they don't, they'll be watching the rest of the playoffs on TV after the second round.

The other three remaining teams in the Western Conference are just too good to let the Hawks dance their way through a playoff series and pick their spots of when they decide to play.

"We want to keep getting better one way or another every single game," Hawks captain Jonathan Toews said Sunday. "You're going to have ups and downs. When you win games, you go home and you can feel good about yourself, and you feel like there's nothing stopping you from going all the way to the last game to win the Cup. When you lose a game, it's the most depressing thing ever. It's trying to learn how to deal with that.

"We're going to have rough days, even on those tough days we have to be better than we were yesterday and find ways to hang in there because not everything is going to go our way. We dealt pretty well with the adversity Nashville presented us in the last series, and we're going to do it again in this one."

If a 5-1 loss to Vancouver in the opener on Saturday night doesn't hammer home the need for the Hawks to roll up their sleeves, what will? The thing is, the temptation is always there for this Hawks team to try to get by on talent. Let's face it, they had three healthy scratches in Game 1 -- Colin Fraser, Adam Burish and Ben Eager -- who could easily be a decent third line on most NHL teams. The Hawks are that deep.

And yet, that's not good enough. The Ottawa Senators found that out for the better part of a decade before finally reaching the 2007 Stanley Cup finals. The Detroit Red Wings, a story that has been told so many times, also needed to learn that lesson the hard way in the early 1990s. The San Jose Sharks are still trying.

Those skill plays look so good in the regular season, but they have very little to do with winning playoff games. And that's the constant challenge for Hawks coach Joel Quenneville.

"We're pretty consistent as far as the energy level in our game," Quenneville said Sunday. "We generated a lot of offense last night that usually leads to some type of production. That's why I feel in this series we'll be measuring our performance by how well we check. We generated enough [Saturday night] that generally we're going to find the [back of] the net three, four, five times.

"If we keep doing those types of things around the net, we got to bear down; we got to make sure we counter on our chances. The quantity and quality last night was enough where we should have had more than one. But I'm not concerned about that part of our game because that's always there."

We wrote April 17 about Chicago's different challenge this season. They've been chosen to win. They're not getting their feet wet this spring -- they must deliver. That mental challenge, from this vantage point, continues to dog this young team two weeks later. A year ago, the Canucks were feeling those playoff expectations for the first time in a while.

"Last year, we had a good team and I think we felt we probably should have won the series against Chicago," Canucks star forward Daniel Sedin said Sunday. "But it's one of those things in the playoffs, you make a few mistakes and it's gonna cost you in the long run.

"If you look at any team that goes a long way, they've usually been through those kinds of things. Hopefully, we learned enough last year so we can go a long way this year."

The thing is, the Hawks haven't had that crushing playoff loss in which they were the favorite and didn't deliver. By the time they giggled their way to the conference finals last spring, they went out against mighty Detroit like they were supposed to. This time around? Any series loss will be deemed a failure. Of course, they can't admit that.

"I don't think it changes much," Hawks forward Patrick Sharp said Sunday. "Last year, there wasn't the expectations we had this year, but we put those on ourselves, as well. You look inside our locker room, we're expecting to go far in the playoffs, and it starts with this series and Vancouver. Everyone talks about down the road and the Stanley Cup, but we're worried about Game 2."

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.