Hawks answer call in Game 5? Check
CHICAGO -- With all apologies to Dennis Green, it turns out these Chicago Blackhawks are what we thought they were. It only took five games to confirm it.
We took these Hawks to the woodshed in our Game 4 column. On Sunday night, it's the Hawks who took it to the Philadelphia Flyers in a 7-4 Game 5 victory that finally validated all the pre-Stanley Cup finals hype that made the Western Conference powerhouse such a favorite.
"We play like that every night, it's going to be tough to beat us," Patrick Kane said.
The transformation from Wachovia Center underperformers to United Center conquerors was no small feat. The Blackhawks had a laundry list of necessary improvements to make to avoid seeing this series slip away from them. Sunday night, Chicago checked off all of them:
Special teams? Check. For the first time in the series, Chicago won the special-teams battle, reversing an ugly trend that had it headed for disaster. The Hawks scored a pair of power-play markers while shutting down what had been a red-hot Flyers power play that had been humming at a ridiculous 31 percent rate (Philly was 0-for-3 in Game 5).
"We knew our power play was going to get going; we have the guys to do it," said Hawks forward Kris Versteeg, who assisted on Brent Seabrook's power-play tally that opened the scoring in the first period. "We ended up doing it tonight, and it feels good and it gives us confidence going forward."
Discipline? Check. Chicago took three penalties to Philadelphia's four; it was the first time in the Cup finals the Hawks took fewer penalties than the Flyers. Philadelphia entered Game 5 with 16 power plays to Chicago's nine, a ghastly gap that would have seen the Hawks head down the path to destruction if they didn't rectify it in a hurry. On Sunday night, the Blackhawks turned the other cheek, notably not retaliating against Flyers star defenseman Chris Pronger. Instead, it was Pronger who took a hooking penalty and the Hawks who scored on the ensuing power play.
"We didn't take penalties tonight; we played whistle to whistle," Hawks defenseman Brian Campbell said. "We did a great job tonight getting into piles, battling for the puck, and once that whistle blew, it's 'OK, let's line up and get playing again, boys.'"
Get offensive production from Patrick Kane and Dustin Byfuglien? Check. Does six points cut it? Funny how not playing every single shift against Pronger can help one's game. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville's decision to split his top unit was a wondrous hit. With the Flyers keeping Pronger on the Jonathan Toews matchup in the first half of the game, Kane and Byfuglien, also on separate lines, had more freedom to strut their stuff. And they did. Kane and Byfuglien combined for three goals and three assists, delivering their most effective games of the Cup finals.
Although Pronger wasn't too impressed by Byfuglien's four-point night, saying after the game, "I guess he's well-rested," the Hawks certainly were.
"He brought so much energy," Versteeg said of Byfuglien, who was invisible in the opening four games. "When he's moving his feet and he's playing hard and hitting bodies like that, he's a hard guy to play against. I think he now gets some confidence from a game like that tonight and knows what he can do and how much he means to this team when he's playing hard. He's got to bring that into the next game, and we know he will."
Get off to a fast start? Check. The Blackhawks had given up the first goal in six of the past eight games entering Sunday, a troublesome habit.
"I thought we had good energy right from the outset," Quenneville said. "Great pace. We had speed on all the lines."
By the time Dave Bolland scored to make it 2-0 15:26 into the first period (and celebrated once again by finding Vince Vaughn's corner of the ice), the Blackhawks achieved their much-desired quick start while feeding off the energy of a delirious United Center crowd that was delighted, and perhaps relieved, by the way the first period went.
"We had a strong first period, and scoring first was big," said Sharp, who Sunday morning told us that was a huge key for Game 5. "It seems like we kept building off that momentum. The crowd was awesome. We got them into it early, and we kind of responded from their energy."
Going to the net and paying the price? Check. The Blackhawks played way too much of a perimeter game in Philadelphia, seemingly unwilling to accept the physical pain one incurs when venturing near the net and making Michael Leighton's life way too easy as a result. The Hawks not only got into the Flyers' backyard Sunday night but they also kicked down the back gate with a stampede of volunteers charging in. You want screens, rebounds and dirty goals? You got some Sunday from a Hawks team that was willing to do what it takes.
Use that famous speed that was supposed to give Philadelphia fits in this series? Check. For four games, the Flyers skated stride for stride with the Blackhawks, which surprised a lot of people. Not Sunday.
"Our pace was as high as it's been in the series," Toews said.
Finally, find a way to minimize Pronger's impact? CHECK. The Flyers' blueliner, for our money the best player through four games in this series, was minus-5 -- the worst plus-minus rating for any game in his All-Star career. He was also on the ice for a Hawks power-play goal.
"He's a great player; we know he'll bounce back," Sharp said.
The Blackhawks certainly bounced back after dropping two straight for the first time this postseason.
"We learned a lot in Philly. We learned from our mistakes," Campbell said. "I know it's a lot about having skill and everything and working hard, but if you don't learn anything along the way, you're not going to be a successful team. The learning process has been over two years now for us."
Two years ago, they were a rebuilding club on the rise. Now, they're one win from the franchise's first Stanley Cup in 49 years.
If the checklist holds up again Wednesday night, consider that a done deal.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
2010 STANLEY CUP FINALS -- GAME 5 RECAP
Chicago's dominating 7-4 win puts it within one of the Cup: