Even with the series lead and home-ice advantage, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock understands there are no defining moments in the early stages of a series against the Blackhawks. No messages sent. No calling cards left.
“We just know right now that this series is so even, it’s really early. It’s three games,” Hitchcock said. “I know for some people it feels like five or six. But it’s three games.”
Even Hitchcock might not fully grasp how much more push-back his team will get as the first-round series enters the Hawks’ wheelhouse in Game 4 on Tuesday night at the United Center.
All the pressure is on the defending Stanley Cup champion Hawks, who are coming off a home loss in Game 3 and want to avoid a 3-1 deficit and an elimination game at Scottrade Center on Thursday night in St. Louis.
But they can handle it, buoyed by their daunting record of picking up steam late in a series. The Hawks are 43-14 (.754) in Games 4-7 of the playoffs in Joel Quenneville’s seven seasons as head coach — 26-6 (.813) in the past three seasons, including 15-1 (.938) at home. (The Penguins have the second-best record in Games 4-7 since 2009 — 22-19, .537).
No wonder Hitchcock isn’t willing to settle for the excellent hockey his team has played so far.
“We have to be better. We have to get better every game,” Hitchcock said. “Each game has gotten more and more intense and the animosity and the anger’s gotten to a very high level now.
“I don’t know what they’re going to do. I don’t know what they’re capable of. Their history say they can go to this level that nobody else can play at. We’re probably going to have to find that out.”
The Hawks are used to showing vulnerability early in a playoff series. They were down 2-1 to the Ducks in the Western Conference final last season before rallying to win in seven games. They were down 2-1 to the Lightning in the Stanley Cup Final before winning three consecutive games to clinch their third Stanley Cup in six seasons. In fact, the Hawks are under .500 (31-32) in the first three games of a playoff series under Quenneville.
That makes their late-series runs even more remarkable — an indication that the Hawks are adept at measuring their opponent, identifying their opponent’s strengths and their own weaknesses, and responding accordingly. Even in years they have lost, the Hawks have finished strong — winning Games 4-5-6 against the Canucks in the first round in 2011 after falling behind 3-0, only to lose Game 7 on the road in overtime; and rallying from a 3-1 deficit to force a Game 7 against the Kings in the 2014 Western Conference final — only to lose again in overtime.
They have left a litany of once-hot opponents in their wake along the way — from stars such as Chris Pronger and Zdeno Chara to upstarts like Ducks goalie Frederik Andersen, who was as tough on the Hawks in the first three games of the conference final last year (a 1.27 goals-against average, .957 save percentage) as the Blues’ Brian Elliott has been in this series (1.28/.963).
After being stymied by Andersen in the first three games — five goals in nearly 12 periods of hockey — the Hawks scored 18 goals against Andersen in the final four games. His save percentage dropped to .845. His goals-against average slumped to 4.13.
It remains to be seen if Elliott will suffer a similar fate, but even if he doesn’t the Hawks have other ways to turn a series in their favor after an uneven start:
- In last year’s Stanley Cup Final, Patrick Kane was shackled by Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman to the point of frustration — no goals, one assist and a minus-1 in the first five games. But in Game 6, Kane had a goal and assist as the Hawks clinched the Cup with a 2-0 victory.
- In last year’s conference final against the Ducks, Jonathan Toews was quiet in the first three games (no goals, one assist, minus-2), but almost single-handedly led the destruction of Andersen, scoring five goals in the final four games — including two goals in the final minute of Game 5 (the Hawks lost in overtime) and two goals in the first period of Game 7.
- In the 2013 Stanley Cup Final against the Bruins, Chara was a minus-6 in the final three games — all Hawks victories. He had been a plus-12 in the playoffs, and a force in the Final, prior to that.
- In the 2010 Stanley Cup Final against the Flyers, Pronger was a leading contender for the Conn Smythe Trophy when the Hawks embarrassed him in Game 5. Pronger, who was a plus-4 in Game 4 when the Flyers tied the series 2-2 (and a plus-7 in the series), was a minus-5 in a 7-4 loss in Game 5. He was on the ice for six of the Hawks’ goals and in the penalty box for the seventh.
What Hitchcock might have to worry about most is something he has no control over — fate often moves its huge hands in the Hawks’ favor late in a playoff series. Trailing the Red Wings 3-2 in their second-round series in 2013, the Hawks’ power play was in an 0-for-13 slump in Game 6 when Red Wings star Pavel Datsyuk — who had been tormenting the Hawks with his stick all series — broke his stick and was without it when Duncan Keith fired a shot from the point that Andrew Shaw tipped in for a tie-breaking goal in a Hawks victory that tied the series. The Hawks won Game 7 en route to the Stanley Cup.
And last year, the Stanley Cup Final against the Lightning arguably turned on an even more fortuitous event in Game 5 of a 2-2 series. Lightning goalie Ben Bishop ill-advisedly went out to play a puck in open ice and collided with Hedman. As the two players stumbled to the ice, Patrick Sharp — who had not scored a goal in 13 games — retrieved the puck and scored into the vacated net for a 1-0 lead. The Hawks won 2-1, and won Game 6 to clinch their third Stanley Cup.
The Hawks know they will need to reach another level to pull off the same feat against the Blues, who look more ready to win than they did in 2014 with outstanding goaltending, impressive balance on offense and defense, and the same old gumption they once depended on to beat opponents, but now complements their improved skill level.
“In order to beat a really good team, you’ve got to be great,” Quenneville said. “We still feel we have another level to get to that greatness, or be as good as we can be.
“We’ve got to feel we can catch that feeling, and knowing our guys find different ways to be the best they can. Whether they bring it out of the other guys, new guys — but they always seem to ind something. We’re fortunate.”
Bringing it out of the new guys could be the challenge that proves to be the Hawks’ undoing. Of the 22 players who have participated in this series so far, eight have never won the Cup; 12 have won one time. The diminishing core of three-time winners (Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson) and two-time winners (Corey Crawford, Andrew Shaw, Marcus Kruger and Michal Rozsival) have a bigger leadership role in this one. But it’s worked before.
“It’s definitely something that you can sense in the room that they’ve been through it — that they have that confidence about them and they definitely lead by example,” said rookie defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk, who played in four playoff games last year — all in the Final. “If you just watch them, they’ll definitely lead you in a very good direction.”
Whether it’s a matter of Quenneville finding the right combinations, their opponents wilting under pressure or the will of Jonathan Toews, the Hawks’ ability to finish stronger than they start seems to give them a mental edge that can make a difference in a close series. It’s pretty clear it will take that and more to win this one.
“We’ve been in situations before when we’ve been trailing and we’ve been able to find a way,” Keith said. “Anytime you can draw on that experience, it’s a good thing and we’re going to try to do that again in this series. It’s all about executing in the moment.”