Confident Blackhawks must dig deeper than ever to win Cup

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Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews (19) is denied by Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilievskiy in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday night at the United Center. The Hawks won 2-1 to tie the best-of-seven series 2-2. (Taso Katopodis/Getty Images)

If you’re getting a bad vibe about this series, you’re not alone.

The Blackhawks claimed they knew what they were up against heading into Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning. They finally were getting a read on an opponent they were unfamiliar with and were prepared to step it up.

And then they played, as Brad Richards said, “probably our worst game in awhile, for whatever reason.”

For whatever reason? Here’s one possible explanation that can’t be written off just because they don’t happen to like it: the Lightning are the better team. The Hawks are used to playing tight-checking opponents that don’t quite have either the Hawks’ top-end skill or their depth and versatility and eventually the Hawks’ patience allows their skill to make the difference. But the Lightning are proving to be the rare opponent that doesn’t have to “pick their poison” against the Hawks. They are faster, just as skilled, deep and versatile and a better checking team than a lot of people knew.

And at least in Game 4, there wasn’t anything the Hawks could do about it — except rely on their renowned resilience and Corey Crawford to bail them out in a paper-thin 2-1 victory that tied the series 2-1.

“That’s something we talked about going into [Game 4] —how good they are at playing a good, tight checking game, being patient,” Brandon Saad said Thursday. “That’s something we have to do — not getting frustrated; taking it one shift at a time; one period at a time. Chances are going to come. We need to execute when they do.”

The joy in watching the Hawks in the playoffs since they became Stanley Cup contenders is their ability to grow throughout the process — to play better as each series progresses and improve from one series to the next. Wild fans who saw the Hawks struggle to beat a Predators team without Shea Weber in the first round thought the Hawks were ripe for an upset. And before they knew it, their team was swept without ever taking a lead — the most complete playoff series victory of the Joel Quenneville era. They didn’t get the Hawks team they thought they were getting.

Ryan Kesler and the Ducks thought they were pounding the Hawks into submission in the Western Conference final, only to find that the Hawks got stronger as the punishment accumulated. The Hawks were better — much better —at the end of the series than at the beginning. Who knew?

Except for the faint of heart, that’s the beauty of the Hawks in the Jonathan Toews-Patrick Kane era. But now more than ever, they have to do it when everybody’s expecting it — a challenge in itself. But the biggest challenge of all is on the ice, where the Hawks are facing a team that they have yet to solve. The Red Wings scored four goals in a game against the Lightning; the Canadiens scored six; the Rangers scored five goals twice and seven in another.

But like the Hawks, the Lightning have turned it up a notch when it counts most. The Hawks — as potent offensively as any team in the playoffs — have yet to score more than three goals in a game against the Lightning. Their 19 shots on goal in Game 4 were tied for the fewest in a playoff game since the opening round against Calgary in 2009.

That doesn’t sound like a team ready to bust out. This might be the ultimate test of the “Hawks being the Hawks.”

“It’s fast, it’s quick, it can be unpredictable. It’s two good hockey teams going at it,” Quenneville said. “Whether it’s going to be a great save or a great play, you know, a fluky goal, I know both teams leave it out there. I know our team loves a challenge, and we expect to get better as we go along.”

That’s what it will take to win this series, because the Hawks know that their current level won’t be enough in the closest of playoff series —2-2 in games; 9-9 in goals; 107-104 (Hawks) in shots. Neither team has led by more than one goal. Al four games have been decided in the third period.

“I think both teams are equally deserving so far,” Toews said. “I think it’s just going to come down to, as they say, who wants it more; who is going to fight and work for those bounces. I think both teams are feeling pretty confident it’s going to go their way right now.”

You gotta love the way Toews throws that “so far” in there. You know that he firmly believes the Hawks will have the final say in this matter. But that remains to be seen against a Lightning team looking ready to win. With time running out, can Toews and the Hawks raise their game when they need it most? The only thing we know for sure is that it will fun to watch.

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