In peril from the start, the Blackhawks were in desperate need of leadership, experience and cool playmakers Saturday night. That’s like trying to find a hen in an hen house on this team.
“I think a lot of us take pride in stepping up in these big games,” forward Patrick Kane said.
From Patrick Sharp’s deep-angle goal after the Hawks fell behind 2-0 in the first period to Duncan Keith’s game-winner with 3:48 left in regulation, charter members of their veteran core carried the Hawks to a 4-3 victory over the Nashville Predators on Saturday night at the United Center that clinched their first-round series 4-2.
Sharp (one goal, one assist), Keith (one goal, two assists), Jonathan Toews (one goal, two assists) and Kane (one goal, one assist) combined for all four of the Hawks’ goals and 10 of their 11 points.
“That’s not how we draw it up,” Toews said. “But I think it gives you a lot of confidence as a team that you’ve got guys that are willing to step it up when things are looking pretty ugly and most people would count us out.
“We’ve got a number of guys — more guys than not — that are willing and ready to jump over the boards and try and make a difference and be the guy that is a game-changer.”
It was a team effort, but the Hawks’ key veterans had a hand in every big play. Keith, who assisted on goals by Sharp and Kane in the first period, scored the winning goal with a blast from the point with both Marian Hossa and Toews in front of the net that beat Predators goalie Pekka Rinne. It was a “scramble play” that capped a wild flurry in which the Hawks had extended time in their offensive zone and broke a 3-3 tie with 3:48 left.
“We did a good job of keeping the puck in the zone and moving around,” Keith said. “We had a lot of chances. It was a scramble play. We kind of knew we had them on the run in their zone for awhile, so I just wanted to be patient and make sure on my shot —knowing that they might be a little gassed when the puck was in their zone the whole time.
“I had some room there to try and make a few fakes and try to get a lane and we had Hoss in the high slot and just tried to get it on net. I’m not sure he [Rinne] saw it all the way.”
The Hawks were in trouble almost from the start when James Neal beat Scott Darling with a backhander off a hustle play just 70 seconds into the game. Neal scored again, on a deflection of a shot by Cody Franson, to make it 2-0 just 8:09 into the game.
Sharp scored on a deep-angle rebound of a long shot by Keith to cut the Predators’ lead to 2-1. But the Predators regained the two-goal advantage just 39 seconds later when Matt Cullen beat Darling to give the Predators a 3-1 lead with 8:44 left in the first period.
“It’s frustrating, but they scored off a couple of quick plays [that] I don’t think they worked too hard for,” Keith said. “We knew there was a lot of time. We’ve got confidence in our offensive ability as a team. We showed that. [But] I think that’s something we can work on — being ready to go from the start. That’s a mental thing more than anything.”
Led by Keith, Sharp, Toews, Kane and Hossa, the Hawks responded. Their first power play typified their heightened awareness of the gravity of the situation. The Hawks came into the game with 13 consecutive failures on the power play. But in a tight spot in a big game, they needed just five seconds to score with a man-advantage after Neal was penalized for cross-checking. Toews, in front of the net, deflected a deep shot by Sharp past Rinne to cut the deficit to 3-2 at 12:14 of the period.
It’s probably not a coincidence that Brad Richards — a former Conn Smythe Award winner with a knack for playoff success (he’s 7-0 in Game 7s in his career), contributed the only “non-core” point of the night with a clutch play. With eight seconds remaining in the period, Richards won a faceoff and Keith tipped the puck to Kane, who blasted a 40-footer past Rinne to tie the game with six seconds left in the period.
“I don’t think there was any panic [after falling behind 2-0 and 3-1],” Kane said. “We knew there was a lot of time left in the game and there were going to be opportunities to get back into it. I don’t know if we saw ourselves at 3-3 going into the second [period], but it worked out. Some nice plays, a big timely power-play goal. It was obviously a good end to the first after a poor start.”