Here’s where the Blackhawks are: They trail the Western Conference final 2-1 after losing 2-1 to the Anaheim Ducks in Game 3 on Thursday night, and now face a near-must-win at the United Center on Saturday.
How they got here, well, that’s a much more complicated question, with any number of answers.
How about a star-laden power-play unit that didn’t score — and mustered one measly shot on goal —in more than nine minutes with the man-advantage, including a dreadful four-minute power play in the first period?
How about another quiet night from most of the Hawks’ biggest stars, other than Patrick Kane, who had the lone goal and nearly scored the equalizer in the final seconds?
How about another lackluster effort in the second period, their third straight against the Ducks?
How about Joel Quenneville inexplicably benching healthy forwards Antoine Vermette and Teuvo Teravainen for Joakim Nordstrom and Kris Versteeg, sending a ripple effect through the lineup that left the bottom six — a strength throughout the playoffs — a shell of itself? Quenneville said it was for “fresh legs” following Tuesday’s triple-overtime victory in Game 2, but fresh also meant rusty. The third line sputtered with Andrew Shaw — coming off one of his finest games — at center, and the fourth line wasn’t nearly the two-way threat it had been without Shaw freed up on the wing.
Take your pick. Plenty of blame to go around on this one. It all adds up to another near miss, and another postseason challenge for the Hawks.
“It’s frustrating to the point that we lost,” Kane said. “Frustrating because we had some opportunities, whether it was a power play or different chances and stuff to get ourselves back in the game. Other than that, we knew this was going to be a tough series, we knew this was a tough team. It’s tough to lose, especially at home.”
Both teams talked a big game about physical and mental fitness following the longest game in Hawks history in Game 2, and said it would have minimal impact on Game 3, even though it came with just one rest day — a lengthy travel day, at that — in between. But it certainly looked to have an effect. And sloppy players on sloppy ice led to a sloppy game as the Ducks regained home-ice advantage — not that it’s meant much yet.
“I think it was more a mental battle for everyone tonight,” Anaheim’s Andrew Cogliano said. “We had basically played two games and that’s pretty tough. Both teams were tired, you could tell. The pace wasn’t as high. But I think this was a character win for us.”
With the Hawks having been through triple-overtime games before — just a few weeks earlier, even —the big question was whether the Ducks had the mental toughness to rebound from such a killer loss, especially considering they had at least a half-dozen chances to win it. But the Ducks showed no ill effects in the early going, and their special teams carried the day —with a 5-for-5 night on the penalty kill, and Patrick Maroon’s power-play goal at 12:55 of the first starting off the scoring.
“They’re a great character team,” Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau said of his players. “This was a character win.”
Kane backhanded a shot from the slot past Frederik Andersen (27 saves) with 56.1 seconds left to salvage the period for the Hawks. He hadn’t scored in two games, but based on his hunched-over, double-fistpump celebration, it must have felt like 20.
But the Hawks didn’t take any momentum from it, giving up eight shots on goal in the first three minutes of the second period. The fatigue seemed to set in, and the Hawks again faltered in the middle stanza, with Simon Despres one-timing a Ryan Getzlaf pass past Corey Crawford in the final minute of the period. Nordstrom abandoned Despres to go after Ryan Getzlaf, who set up Despres for the one-timer from the right side.
The Hawks tried to push for the equalizer in the third period, but didn’t appear to have the energy nor the ability to get anywhere near Andersen, as the Ducks held on.
Looking back, the reasons for the loss are myriad and complex. Looking ahead, the mission is painfully simple. Win, or head back to Anaheim in deep trouble.
“Those Game 4s when it’s 2-1 are always big,” Kane said. “But we can get ourselves right back in the series and put a little pressure on them going back home, too.”