They’re built on speed, skill, talent and all the elegant and electric highlight-reel stuff, but the Blackhawks are first and foremost pro athletes — hypercompetitive alpha males running on adrenaline, testosterone and pride.
And nobody likes to be pushed around.
‘‘You can’t just be hit,’’ defenseman Michal Rozsival said. ‘‘Sometimes you’ve got to give a hit, too. We can’t have them bully us all the time.’’
Of course, as so many of us non-professional athletes — running on adrenaline, self-preservation and fear — learned through the years, the best way to deal with a bully is to ignore and outsmart him. Not to let him get in your head. Not to fall into his trap. Not to let him win.
The Hawks are letting the Blues win.
The Hawks are losing their composure, losing the puck and losing games. They’re jumping into shoving matches after nearly every whistle and running their mouths. They’re running around looking for hits instead of the puck. They’re taking liberties they usually don’t take, getting away with some (Duncan Keith with a few aggressive slashes) and getting tagged on others (Kris Versteeg tackling Derek Roy well after a whistle, Bryan Bickell’s knee-on-knee hit on Vladimir Sobotka and, of course, Brent Seabrook’s devastating hit on David Backes that earned him a three-game suspension).
They’re playing Blues hockey. Which is exactly what the Blues want. The Blues are doing all those things, too, of course. They’re just better at it.
‘‘We might have played into their hands, but we’ve got to get back to our hockey,’’ said forward Brandon Saad, one of the few Hawks to admit that maybe they need to rein themselves in a bit as they try to rally from a 2-0 series deficit. ‘‘Because when we’re playing that way, we do a good job. And that’s how we win.’’
Exactly. The Hawks, who always have bristled a bit at the ‘‘finesse’’ label, have proved their manliness in the past, showing they can handle the rough stuff. And as center Michal Handzus was quick to point out, the Hawks went from awful to all right once they started hitting back in the second period of Game 2.
But if you’re hitting, it means you don’t have the puck. And the Hawks win with their puck-possession game, not their physical play. It’s a fine line — one they walked expertly against the Kings and Bruins last spring, but one they’ve clearly crossed in this series. The Hawks have been hit with 15 penalties through two games, nine in Game 2.
As good as the penalty kill has been, the Hawks can’t possibly win this series using it nine times a night. They’ve got to keep their heads in the game and out of, well, other places.
‘‘Obviously, we cannot take as many penalties as [in Game 2],’’ Handzus said. ‘‘We can be more disciplined, that’s for sure. But you need to play physical, and you’ve got to push back right away.’’
Perhaps, but only to an extent. The Hawks can’t sacrifice the puck for a hit. They can’t get away from what makes them great. While they’ve been playing the Blues’ game, the Hawks’ forwards have only one goal through two games. The power play has only seven shots in its last nine opportunities. The crisp breakout passes from the defense that stretch the opponent and make it so hard to catch the Hawks have been nonexistent. The Hawks’ speed, their greatest asset, has been all but neutralized.
The Hawks are less than two minutes away from a 2-0 series lead. It has been that close. Emotions are running hot, and the teams’ mutual hatred grows uglier with each period. But as the series shifts to the United Center, the answer isn’t to hit back harder; it’s to play Hawks hockey.
It’s time for the Hawks to do what they do best: skate, pass and score. Because the best way to deal with bullies isn’t to fight them on their terms; it’s to make them look silly on yours.