In the middle of an empty arena, isolated away from their families, lodging in the locker room of their opponents and playing hockey well past midnight Central Time on Wednesday, the Blackhawks were six minutes away from a Friday night date with elimination.
And then, against all odds, they flipped the script.
Two goals in the final six minutes ultimately lifted the Hawks to a stirring 4-3 win over the Oilers in Game 3, pushing them within one win of advancing.
“When you win a game like that, it’s kind of why you do this,” coach Jeremy Colliton said.
“Look, we just believe in ourselves,” forward Matthew Highmore added. “We knew [if] you get enough chances, eventually they’re going to go in for us. We just kept digging and playing our game.”
Highmore, whose earlier committed two turnovers that led directly to Oilers goals, tipped a Slater Koekkoek point shot past Edmonton goalie Mikko Koskinen to tie the game with 5:48 to play. It was his first career playoff goal.
Then Jonathan Toews, who not long before had hit the inside of the post on a juicy rebound when the Hawks trailed 3-2, had a Connor Murphy point shot deflect off an Oilers defenseman and then his knee to win it with 1:16 left.
“It’s definitely frustrating when you get chances like I did late in the game,” Toews said. “But you’ve got no choice. You’re down a goal. Keep putting the pressure on...[and] keep pressing, and you know it’s gonna come for you.”
The common theme in both goals: Hawks defensemen getting point shots through traffic, and Hawks forwards getting tips or causing havoc around Koskinen.
The same was true for the Hawks’ first goal of the game, when Olli Maatta extended his unlikely point streak to three consecutive games with a long deflected goal.
“[We’re] getting pucks through, and it feels like every time we get it to the net, our forwards are in good position, battling for them, getting rebounds, getting tips,” Maatta said. “It makes it tough for them.”
Maatta’s goal represented the first time the Hawks scored first in the series, and the Hawks produced a solid first period overall, taking a 2-1 lead into the intermission after a late Toews tally during a 5-on-3.
But in the second period, the Hawks’ power play squandered a number of opportunities gift-wrapped by the undisciplined Oilers, and Leon Draisaitl (two goals) and Connor McDavid (one goal) inflicted their usual damage to put the Hawks down heading into the third.
After Toews’ hit the post early in the final frame — the Hawks’ fifth shot to hit the post and rattle out — it situation looked dire for the Hawks.
In the end, it only looked that way on the outside.
“We were playing well, so the message to the guys was, ‘This is adversity, but we’ve just got to stick with it,” Colliton said. “Believe in what we’re doing. Be patient to give ourselves time to come back.”
“And I thought we did that.”
The Hawks were the official home team Wednesday. That meant dressing in what is usually the Oilers locker room at Rogers Place, listening to recordings of Jim Cornelison’s United Center anthem renditions and making use of the last change at stoppages.
Colliton used that tactical advantage to deploy the new line of Kirby Dach centering Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat very frequently. Dach played more than 23 minutes — a huge endorsement for the rookie.
Corey Crawford also scraped off some rust, making 25 saves and looking generally more poised and stable than in Games 1 and 2.
The Hawks now have the opportunity to close out the series in Game 4 on Friday at 5:45 p.m. CT.
“We’ve had some experience in the past knowing how to play, how to prepare for those big games,” Toews said. “It’s [about] having that killer instinct but knowing that every game in this series has gotten tougher. It’s going to be the toughest game coming up.”