The Blackhawks always have been labeled a finesse team, a skill team, an offensive-minded speed team. And for good reason. With all the high-end talent they have on the roster, the Hawks surely would love to skate, to press, to be on the attack for a full 60 minutes.
But during their remarkable run over the past several seasons, the Hawks have shown a chameleon-like ability to adapt to any opponent, any style, any type of series. You don’t win eight of nine series and go to three straight Western Conference finals by being one-dimensional.
“If you want to be the best, you have to play different teams that are good [with] different styles, teams that play different ways,” Bryan Bickell said. “You have to get through them to win the ultimate goal. The versatility and options in our group — it’s crucial. And I think that’s why we’ve been so successful.”
The Hawks beat the clutch-and-grab Detroit Red Wings in 2013. They handled the punishing Los Angeles Kings in five games in 2013, and pushed them to seven games in 2014. They withstood the physical, line-blurring, post-whistle extracurriculars of the St. Louis Blues last postseason in a six-game victory. They beat the Nashville Predators in a track meet in the first round this season, and swept the sagging, slogging, soul-sucking defense of the Minnesota Wild in the second round by beating them at their own game.
Up next? The talented, imposing and bruising Anaheim Ducks, or the gritty, shot-blocking, unpredictable Calgary Flames. It still won’t be the Hawks’ preferred style. It still probably won’t much matter.
“I’m sure the guys want to do the up-and-down game to get more offense,” Bickell said. “But we knew going into [the Wild] series that this is a tight-checking team, and they capitalize on their opportunities. We need to be similar, to play smart and defensively, to put pucks in good spots and give them no opportunities to get goals.”
The Hawks are almost defiant about their ability to adapt. They bristle at the finesse label, insisting they can handle all comers, no matter how physical, no matter how defensive-minded.
Patrick Sharp said that versatility comes from experience. You don’t get out of the Central Division alive by playing one style of hockey.
“You look at our division, and you’ve got a little bit of everything in there,” Sharp said. “You’ve got teams like Dallas that can put up six goals on you in a heartbeat. You’ve got St. Louis, who’s going to beat you up physically and play a real patient game. Minnesota’s structurally sound. So you play these teams all season long, you have to find a way to adjust. Of course, there’s no such thing as a perfect hockey game. Sometimes you’re trailing, sometimes you’ve got to play protecting the lead, and sometimes you’ve go to go out there and score that goal to win it. We’re a team that’s been together for a lot of years. We’ve had a lot of practice playing different styles.”
Patrick Kane — who showed his own versatility with a couple of excellent backchecking plays against the Wild in Game 4 — said the Hawks have no preference in the next round, but that they’ll be keeping an eye on the Ducks-Flames series to get an idea of what they’re in for. While teams from the Central Division know each other all too well through all the regular-season and postseason battles, the Hawks only see the Pacific Division teams two or three times a year.
“You just watch the series and kind of gather some information from both teams, and see what happens at the end,” Kane said. “I don’t think you take too much information, or [put together] any scouting reports right now. You just kind of watch the games as a fan and see what ends up happening.”
No matter what awaits them in the next round, and perhaps beyond, the Hawks are confident they can handle it. And their track record backs up the bravado.
“We can play check, we can play run, we can play against the bruiser teams,” Bickell said. “That’s what’s good about us.”