“We’re hoping this is nowhere near our best. We’ve got a long ways to go.”
That’s what Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said after the Hawks beat the Nashville Predators in Game 6 to clinch their first-round playoff series — in 2010. And the same sentiment holds true today after Toews helped lead the Hawks past the Predators in a Game 6 clinching victory on Saturday night.
It’s just a start.
“Going into the next series [against the Minnesota Wild], we know we can build off the good things we did in this series,” Toews said after contributing a goal and two assists in the Hawks’ 4-3 victory at the United Center. “But we know the ceiling —we’re not even close yet.”
On paper, the Hawks’ series victory was unimpressive and left a lot of room for improvement. The Hawks were outscored 21-19 and arguably outplayed for much of the series by a team playing the final 4 1/2 games without its best player, all-star defenseman Shea Weber and also without its best two-way forward in veteran center Mike Fisher for three games.
The Hawks won the series 4 games to 2, yet led for only 29:34 of the entire series. The Predators lost 4 games to 2, yet had the lead for 117:08 — the equivalent of nearly six full periods.
“I think as a team we know we can get better,” Kane said. “But we’re excited to move on.”
In 2010 and again in 2013, if the Hawks had played the entire playoff at the level they played the first round, they never would have won the Cup. But there’s the rub with a championship team loaded with championship-caliber talent — the Hawks responded to the degree-of-difficulty and the urgency of the matter and stepped it up.
That intangible was clearly evident in closing out the Predators series when the veteran core carried the Hawks to victory after they fell behind 2-0 and 3-1. Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith combined for all four goals and 10 of the team’s 11 points in the 4-3 victory.
Their success the rest of the way almost certainly rests on their ability to take yet another step up in the ensuing rounds.
“More than anything, it’s nice to get the win and be able to move on,” said Keith, who won Game 1 with a slap shot from the point in double-overtime and scored the game-winner in Game 6 on a similar shot with 3:48 left in regulation.
“There are a lot of positives [from Game 6]. Over the course of the series, there were a lot of good things we did. We know there are some things we can get better at for sure. We’ll look to work on that as well.”
The Hawks will face a hotter, healthier team in the next round against the Wild, who beat the Blues 4-1 on Sunday at Xcel Energy Center to clinch their first round series in six games. The Hawks will have home-ice advantage against the Wild. They would not have had it against the Blues.
Perhaps wary of regretting what they wish for, Kane and Keith were ambivalent about having home-ice in the next round when they were asked about the prospect of facing either the Wild or the Blues.
“I don’t really know,” Kane said. “We seem to play pretty well on the road sometimes, too. Sometimes you get yourself in front there when you win 1-of-2 on the road and can kind of switch home ice to yourself. If homes ice comes to us, we’ll be happy with that. If not, we’ve got to deal with that.”
They are well-equipped to handle that challenge. The Hawks have won at least one road game in their last 14 playoff series — the second-longest such streak in the NHL (Bruins, 17) —and 16 of 17 playoff series in seven seasons under Quenneville.
“I think it’s nice to have home ice, you don’t have to travel [to start the series],” Keith said. “But I don’t think that’s something that we’re going to worry about. We’ve got a good road record this year and we’ll try to use that. Everything’s different in the playoffs, though, so we’ll just take it as it comes.”