Blackhawks undaunted by home-ice disadvantage vs. Blues
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Asked if starting the first-round of the playoffs against the St. Louis Blues on the road was a positive or negative, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville didn’t hesitate.
“It’s a plus,” he said, “because that’s the way it is.”
Quenneville can afford to be so casual about being at a disadvantage against a division rival in a huge Stanley Cup playoff series because his team is so good at overcoming it. The Hawks are 26-23 (.531) on the road in the playoffs since the initial run to the Stanley Cup in 2010. And they get tougher to beat on the road as the series ensues. The Hawks are 12-3 (.800) on the road in Games 5-7 of a playoff series since 2010, with a 51-35 goal differential — only the Kings (8-6) and Lightning (5-4) are over .500 among regular playoff contenders in that span.
Perhaps even more important is their consistency. The Hawks have won at least one road game in 17 consecutive playoff series since the beginning of the 2010 postseason and in 19 of 20 series in Quenneville’s seven seasons (the lone exception was against the Red Wings in the 2009 Western Conference final, when the Hawks lost in five games.).
So while the challenge is formidable against the Blues, it is far from daunting that knows how to win on the road.
“If you want to win the Stanley Cup, you pretty much have to,” Hawks captain Jonathan Toews said. “You have to kind of rise to the occasion and get yourself out of some tough situations.”
The Hawks’ success in road playoff games is another testament to the mental toughness, experience and ability to survive difficult moments. Last year, they were down 3-0 in the first period of their playoff opener against the Predators and rallied to win 4-3 in double overtime after Scott Darling replaced Corey Crawford in goal. Toews had a goal and two assists in the comeback.
“I believe we have those intangibles,” Toews said. “That is experience is one of those things where if things are looking so good, we don’t panic and we know that we have the resilience to find ways to make things better. So we’ll go into this series focusing on the start, making sure we can play [with the lead]. But we have the confidence that we can get ourselves out of hot water if we have to.”
It’s not a coincidence that much of the Hawks’ success on the road stems from Toews’ leadership. In the 2010 playoffs, Toews scored six goals and 19 points with a plus-3 rating in 11 road games en route to the Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe Trophy (he had one goal and 10 points, with a minus-4 rating in 11 home games that postseason). In the waning moments of Game 6 of the 2013 Cup Final at TD Garden, Toews feathered a perfect pass to Bryan Bickell for the tying goal in the “17 seconds” game that clinched the Cup.
In 2014 against the Blues, Toews scored the game-winning goal in overtime in Game 5 on the road. Last year in Game 5 of the Western Conference final against the Ducks, Toews scored two goals in the final two minutes of regulation to force overtime. In Game 7 at Honda Center, Toews scored two first-period goals to lead the Hawks to a 5-3 victory.
But even Toews knows he is fortunate to have had several level-headed teammates to follow his lead. When Toews lost his cool in the heat of battle on the road — in Game 4 against the Red Wings in the 2013 conference semifinals — Brent Seabrook played the big brother role and calmed down the team captain. When the Hawks returned to Detroit for Game 6, Toews had two assists in a 4-3 Hawks victory.
And the Hawks seem to learn well. Despite their general success on the road in the playoffs, they lost the first road game of a series 10 consecutive times through the 2014 playoffs. But last year, they won the first road game in three of four series and were 7-5 overall on the road.
“I think we have a lot of guys that kind of thrive under that atmosphere,” defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said. “When the crowd is screaming at you, [it] kind of adds some fuel to the fire and I guess we get even more motivated and excited to want to make plays.”
Other teammates, like goalie Corey Crawford have learned — through experience and osmosis — how to handle the challenge of playoff hockey on the road.
“Just being patient, not letting your emotions take over,” Crawford said. “Sometimes when you’re on the road and the home crowd starts getting momentum going — don’t play into that too much and just stay focused on your game.
“It’s something that comes with experience, especially if you’re able to play further and win championships. Knowing how to play those momentum situations and key situations in a series that can maybe change a game or a series — [it’s important] to not get overwhelmed and lose your head in this situations.”