From the early stages of their glorious run of playoff success, the secret to the Blackhawks’ success has been not their star power or their depth, but their versatility.
Going back to the 2010 championship team, the Hawks have always had grinders who could score (Dave Bolland, Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg) and scorers who can grind (Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, et. al). Dustin Byfuglien was an up-and-coming defenseman with the Hawks, but never a bigger scourge than when he played forward in the playoffs — a grinder, agitator and scorer all wrapped up in one uniquely built player.
The salary cap has robbed the Hawks of Byfuglien, Bolland, Ladd and a lot of the luxuries that put them ahead of the rest of the NHL. But with their veteran core intact and playing at an elite level, the pieces around that core still give the Hawks the versatility that makes them championship contenders. As the Wild have found out in losing the first three games of their second-round series, the Hawks can handle anything you throw at them.
As Wild coach Mike Yeo said, much of the Hawks’ offense in this series has come off their hustle and defense. Their first goal in the opener was a magnificent offensive play by Brandon Saad, but it started in the Hawks’ defensive end, with Saad and Marian Hossa forcing a turnover. And in Game 2, it was Hossa’s takeaway from Ryan Suter that led to Toews’ shorthanded goal.
“For all the firepower they have in their lineup, their rush chances have come off our turnovers,” Yeo said. “It’s not like they’re forcing plays that aren’t there. They have good recognition of when to attack and when to get in on the forecheck. Probably the difference in the series is they’re taking what we’re giving them as opposed to the other way around.
“I think tactically, we have to attack their game plan a little better. We have to understand what they’re doing, the areas where they’re strong and the areas where they’re not and make sure we attack the areas where they’re not strong a little better than we have.”
That’s a tough task against the Hawks, who have the ability to attack — and defend — from all angles. The Hawks are hardly unbeatable. But their vulnerability is exposed mostly from their own lethargy. There have been times when 36-year-old defenseman Michal Rozsival has looked like a statue on the ice this season, but not in this series. He didn’t suddenly get younger. The Hawks are engaged in this series. They’re alert and fast and responsive, with few letdowns. It hides a lot of blemishes.
“I like the progress,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “I thought our first round was very close. It was on the line, game-in and game-out. Our game had good and bad. But a lot more consistency in our game [against the Wild] — more four-line rotation is coming out. No matter who’s going out there, they’re doing the right things. We’re getting pressure, pace and that can make us a good team.”
After an inconsistent regular season, the Hawks are proving that they are more than just a team with skill. They’re built well and coached well. They do what they have to do to win games, because they can.
“I’m not really surprised, to be honest with you,” Yeo said when asked about the Hawks showing patience to match the Wild’s discipline. “That’s a team that obviously has great firepower, but you don’t win championships without being really good defensively.
“They’ve beaten different teams and done it different types of ways. If you open up against them, they can get into that type of game. But they’re certainly capable of playing tight-checking hockey games as well.”