ANAHEIM, Calif. — They’ve still got it.
The Blackhawks showed glimpses of their weaknesses from the start of the Western Conference final against the Anaheim Ducks — enough to make you wonder if they had lost their touch as a team that knows how to get the job done.
They came in virtually with four playoff-quality defensemen — who were prey to the wear-and-tear of not only high ice time but the Ducks’ obsession with beating the heck out of them. The Hawks were struggling to solve Ducks goaltender Frederik Andersen, who after three games was playing as well as any goaltender has against the Hawks in the playoffs since the Coyotes’ Mike Smith in 2012. Even Joel Quenneville was off his game, inexplicably benching Teuvo Teravainen and Antoine Vermette in Game 3 after both played well enough in a Game 2 victory.
The Hawks went nearly 110 minutes in Game 2 without scoring. They allowed three goals in 37 seconds in Game 4. And somehow they won both of them.
That, though, was a prelude to a grand finish in Game 7 on Saturday night. With not only their playoff lives, but their status as the gold standard of the NHL’s salary-cap era on the line, the Hawks responded like the championship team they have been and might become again.
With captain Jonathan Toews leading the way, the Hawks won 5-3 to win the series, advance to the Stanley Cup Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning, and confirmed their status as the best closers in the business.
After trailing 3-2 in a series that was as closely played as any series the Hawks have played in over the past seven years, the Hawks dominated the final two games. They led 3-0 in Game 6 and won 5-2. They led 4-0 in Game 7. When it came time to win or lose the series, the Hawks made the more-than-worthy Ducks look like the Wild.
How does that happen?
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” defenseman Brent Seabrook said. “I think we’ve got a special group here. We’ve got 20 guys that aren’t willing to give up.”
“I don’t really have the answer,” forward Patrick Sharp said. “I don’t think it felt any different out there. It was tight-checking all the way through, right from Game 1.”
By winning three of the final four games of the series, the Hawks are 40-14 in Game 4-7 of a playoff series under Joel Quenneville. No other team is even close. When the going got tough, the Hawks turned it up a notch. The Ducks didn’t respond.
In fact, they wilted in Game 7 to live up to their own reputation of ultimately coming up short. They missed golden opportunities and whiffed on opportunities to control the puck. They weren’t as bad as the “Nervous Nellies” coach Bruce Boudreau claimed they were in a 6-2 loss to the Kings in a Game 7 last year. But they were close.
Asked what the difference would be in Game 7, Ducks forward and Toews-nemesis Ryan Kesler said, “I think it’s about who wants it more and who is ready to out-compete the guy across from him.”
It’s got to be more than that. Toews wants it just as much as Kesler and vice-versa. But for some reason, the Hawks are able to channel their desperation and motivation into championship play. That’s what makes them the special team they’ve been.
“I don’t think it was anything other than just trying to have a good start,” Seabrook said. “We had a good start in Chicago in Game 6 and a good start [in Game 7].
“Sometimes when you have some good starts like that, you might get a lucky one or a bounce to go your way. Maybe it put them on their heels a little bit. But tonight we had a good start as a group. We were all ready to roll.”