At times in the regular season it looked like the Blackhawks were getting old. Now it appears they’re just growing up.
Through two rounds of the playoffs, the Hawks haven’t been nearly as precocious as they’ve been in previous postseasons, when even their championship teams had a knack for playing with fire. In 2010, the Hawks lost their first-round opener at home to the Predators and needed a Houdini-like escape at home in Game 5 to avoid an elimination game in Nashville. The 2013 team fell into a 3-1 series hole in the second round against the Red Wings and were 20 minutes from elimination in Game 5 before rallying to win in seven games.
There has been notably no such distress in this postseason against the Predators, who had home-ice advantage in the first round, and the Wild, who had the best record in the NHL in the final three months of the regular season. The Hawks extricated themselves from a 3-0 hole in the first period of the opener against Nashville almost as quickly as they fell into it. They blew a 3-0 lead against the Wild in the second period of Game 1 in the second round, but regained the lead before the period was over and never lost it.
What’s the deal with that? It remains to be seen if the Hawks are better than they ever were, but they’re in better shape than they ever were heading into the conference final. Jonathan Toews points to veteran leadership with instilling whatever intangible it is that spurs the Hawks to raise the level of their game to meet the next challenge —a hallmark of the Hawks’s success since the won the Cup in 2010 that they seem to be improving on this postseason.
“I don’t read [or] watch a lot about what’s going on,” Toews said, “but I do remember reading something —I think it might have been from the opposition —someone talking about the talent we had and the success we have in the playoffs has to do with talent.
“I think to a certain degree every team has talent. But you look at the guys in this room, the leadership group —the Sharps, the Kanes, the Hossas, the Keiths, the Seabrooks — you go down the list of guys you hear about all the time. They want to win more than anybody. I think we do what we have to do to have success throughout the regular season and make the playoffs.
“To us, this is the season that matters the most. This is when we want to win. This is when we want to come together as a team. It’s when it’s fun to play. So I think that’s when you see some of these guys rise to the occasion, score big goals and make big saves. You’ve got Hammer [Niklas Hjalmarsson] layin’ in front of hots — someone missed an empty net last game, rang one off the post [editor’s note; that was Toews, mocking his own failure]. Someone’s got to lay down and block those shots and pay the price.
“Maybe it is an intangible. But at the end of the day, there’s a lot of guys in this room [that] want to win for each other more than anything else. I know that sounds cliche and a little cheesy. But I think that’s the most important thing to these guys.”
1a. For the record, nine Hawks have played in 99 or more career playoff games —Marian Hossa (181), Brad Richards (128), Patrick Sharp (116), Jonathan Toews (104), Niklas Hjalmarsson (104), Patrick Kane (103), Duncan Keith (103), Michal Rozsival (102) and Brent Seabrook (99). (Rozsival, however, is out for the season with a broken left ankle.)
The Ducks’ playoff experience leaders are Ryan Getzlaf (90 games) , Francois Beauchemin (90), Corey Perry (83) and Ryan Kesler (66). Getzlaf, Beauchemin and Perry are the three remaining players from the Ducks’ 2007 Stanley Cup championship team.
2. Numbers game: Only two of the top 15 scorers in the regular season are playing in the conference finals — the Lightning’s Steven Stamkos (43 goals, 29 assists, 72 points) and Tyler Johnson (29-43, 72). But 11 of the top 15 in plus/minus are still playing for the Cup. Jonathan Toews (plus-30, fifth best in the NHL) leads the Hawks. Defenseman Hampus Lindholm (plus-25, tied with Hawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson for 11th) leads the Ducks.
3. It hasn’t been a good year for the chronic postseason underachievers. The Sharks didn’t even make the playoffs. The Blues again lost in the first round despite having home-ice advantage. The Penguins were in tough against the Rangers and lost in the first round. And the Capitals, despite the best efforts of Barry Trotz, suffered another inglorious demise, losing a 3-1 series lead against the Rangers and losing in seven games.
The Ducks, kind of a junior member of the club with only two playoff series victories prior to this season since winning the Cup in 2007 — plus Game 7 losses on home ice the past two seasons —are the last one standing.
4. In case you missed it:My colleague Mark Lazerus had an interesting story (https://chicago.suntimes.com/blackhawks-hockey/7/71/603323/smaller-players-can-big-value-modern-day-nhl) on the Hawks trying to stay ahead of the curve by signing smaller Patrick Kane-type players such as Teuvo Teravainen and Russian star Artemi Panarin.
An almost ironic footnote to that story: In 1980, less than a year after Scotty Bowman left the Canadiens (and two years after GM Sam Pollock did), Montreal went against it’s long-standing tradition of acquiring French Canadiens (Maurice and Henri Richard, Jean Beliveau, Jacques Lemaire, Guy Lafleur, Patrick Roy, et. al), to pick the best big center they could get with the No. 1 overall pick: 6-1, 196-pound Doug Wickenheiser over little Denis Savard.
It quickly turned into a colossal mistake Canadiens fans will never forget. Wickenheiser played three disappointing seasons in Montreal before he was traded to the Blues. The Hawks took Savard with the No. 3 overall pick and became contenders after a playoff drought. With Savard playing at a Hall of Fame pace, the Hawks, who had lost six of their previous seven playoff series, made the conference final five times in his 10 seasons with the team.
(As luck would have it, the Canadiens’ season-opener in 1980-81 was against the Hawks. While Wickenheiser watched from the press box as a healthy scratch, Savard was Denis Savard from the start, scoring his first NHL goal and being voted the No. 1 star as the Hawks won 5-4 — the first time the Canadiens had lost their home opener since 1952.)
5. The Ducks are leading the NHL in power-play percentage (9-for-29, 31.0 percent), but did most of that damage (6-for-18, 33 percent) against the Flames, who ranked 20th in the NHL in penalty-kill percentage in the regular season (80.6). The Hawks were 2-for-6 (33 percent) in the second round against the Wild, who led the NHL in penalty-kill percentage in the regular season (86.3).
6. None of the Hawks have ever had a nine-day layoff in the Stanley Cup playoffs. But Marian Hossa had an eight-day layoff with the Penguins in 2008, prior to facing the Rangers in the second round. Hossa scored the tying goal in Game 1 after the Penguins had fallen behind 3-0 and rallied to win, 5-4 in overtime.
Hossa, who was 29 at the time, scored four goals and five points in that series. He scored two goals in the Game 5 clincher, including the series-ending goal in overtime.
7. Home-ice disadvantage isn’t a big concern for the Hawks. They’ve won at least one road game in their last 15 playoff series and 17 of their 18 playoff series under Joel Quenneville. They have not lost at home in six of nine series since 2013.
The Ducks are 5-0 at home in the postseason, but could be vulnerable against a championship caliber team like the Hawks. Over the past three postseasons, the Ducks are 8-0 at home against the Jets, Flames and Stars, but 3-5 against the Red Wings and Kings.
8. For what it’s worth — the Hawks are 2-5 in series openers on the road under Joel Quenneville, including overtime losses to the Coyotes in 2012 and the Blues last year. … In the last 10 years, teams that sweep one series are 9-9 in the following series. … David Rundblad was a plus-3 when paired with Duncan Keith in the regular season —with the Hawks scoring 11 goals and allowing eight when they were on the ice. … Patrick Sharp has scored at least one goal in his last 19 playoff series, going back to his rookie year with the Flyers in 2004. (The next longest streak among Hawks players is Patrick Kane with eight.) … Kane has six goals and eight points and is a plus-6 in his last six games. … If it comes to it, Brad Richards is 7-0 in Game 7s in his career. … The Ducks 30-8-2 when either Corey Perry or Ryan Getzlaf scores a goal.
9. With Michal Rozsival out for the rest of the playoffs, defenseman Kimmo Timonen is an even bigger x-factor against the Ducks. Most experts figure the “Big 4” of Keith, Hjalmarsson, Seabrook and Johnny Oduya to pick up the slack. But others sense that the 40-year-old Timonen might become a bigger factor in this series than the previous two.
It has been five years since Timonen was victimized by Patrick Kane on Kane’s series-clinching goal in Game 6 of the Cup Final between the Hawks and the Flyers. That’s as close as Timonen has come to winning the cup in his 17 seasons. He’s only halfway home to that goal, but thinks he’s in the best spot to win it.
“Everybody I talked to said, ‘This team is deep and they’ve been there before.’” Timonen said. “A lot of people said, ‘Pick Chicago if you have a chance to pick it.’ At the end of the day it was an easy choice to come here. It’s just a deep team. Such good players. And we can win games in different ways. It is not just the one line, PP [power play] or PK [penalty kill] or whatever. There are many ways that we can win games and that’s usually the sign of a good team.”
10. Picks to click: Rangers over Lightning in 7. Blackhawks over Ducks in 6. Dortmund over American Pharoah in 1:54.67.