MINNEAPOLIS — At the apex of the Bulls’ dynasty, after an awe-inspiring rout of the Supersonics at Key Arena gave them a 3-0 lead in the 1996 NBA Finals, the Bulls all but lit the victory cigar — making owner Jerry Reinsdorf and general manager Jerry Krause available to the media prior to Game 4, with both team executives happily answering questions about their place in NBA history, the future and other big-picture subjects that assumed the title was in hand.
They got just a little ahead of themselves. The Bulls were rocked in Game 4 and also lost Game 5 on the road and had to work for a Game 6 victory at the United Center to clinch their place in NBA history.
That’s the danger of a 3-0 lead at any point of a playoff series — the assumption of victory. But the Blackhawks had no such issue Wednesday, less than 24 hours after their 1-0 victory over the Minnesota Wild gave them a 3-0 lead in their second-round playoff series.
The Hawks still are expected to win the series — only four of the 180 teams that previously took 3-0 leads in a Stanley Cup playoff series failed to finish the job. But there was hardly a hint of the assumption of victory in either the questions or the answers at the Hawks’ media availability at the downtown Westin hotel.
“I think the series is pretty close, to be honest with you,” forward Patrick Sharp said. “I know it’s 3-0 on our side, but it definitely doesn’t feel like that. Minnesota’s a team that’s capable of winning a huge stretch of games. They’ve got some high-end speed and talent that can play as well. We’re very fortunate to be sitting here 3-0. We’re not going to change much, [just] play even harder in Game 4 and try to close it out.”
It’s easier said than done with a 3-0 series lead. The Hawks will be battling not only the Wild in Game 4 on Thursday night at Xcel Energy Center, but human nature. Sometimes no matter how hard you try to avoid the assumption of victory, you can get sucked into it. Just as constant questions about being 1-9 in Game 3 road games can inspire a team to do something about it, you answer enough questions about how great your team is and you can’t help but start to believe it.
The only subject really close to that on Wednesday was merely addressing the obvious: The Hawks are playing their best hockey of the season at the right time.
“I wouldn’t disagree with that,” defenseman Brent Seabrook said. “I think as a whole we’re all playing well. As a group that’s what it takes to win in the playoffs — having 20 guys all on the same page, playing the same game, rolling [four] lines and getting everybody out there.”
As they did in their previous championship seasons, the Hawks are raising their game from one series to the next. They are leading a series 3-0 for only the second time in their seven-year playoff run — the first time since the 2010 conference final against San Jose, when they completed the sweep. And they have yet to trail against the Wild — a notable achievement for a team that habitually plays with fire.
But we’re still a long, long, long way from Rocky Wirtz, John McDonough and Stan Bowman addressing this team’s place in history — nine victories away, to be exact. And not even the next one is a sure thing. This is still hockey, not the NBA. And for all their success, the Hawks have been conditioned to not only think they haven’t done anything yet, but actually believe it.
“One thing in the playoffs, you never want to get ahead of yourself,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “There are different, challenges, swings that can happen. We’ve been in a lot of different situations — down 3-0, ahead 3-0. You’re always playing that next game like it’s a game you have to win.
“And that’s your focus. You don’t think of the three games after. We want to make sure right off the bat, we’re playing the right way and not waiting for them to come at us in their building being electrified by a big start by them. We want to quiet [their crowd] even more effectively than we did [in Game 3].”
That won’t be easy against a Wild team that will be in pure desperation mode. But the Hawks have one more thing going for them heading into Game 4 — they are locked into the task at hand.