Not that much actually. We already knew this was going to be a close, competitive series. We also knew that the play would be particularly nasty. Maybe not as nasty (and unnecessary) as the Seabrook hit, but watching these teams go at it the last couple of years, you knew there would be a lot of gloves to the face type extracurriculars going on after the whistle. It seems that things cannot get much more even. In the sparkling platitudes of Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, “Both teams are, for me, fully invested and trying to win this series… Everything is just so even, you get down to a best-of-3.” Thank you, Ken.
The turning point for the Blackhawks in the series so far surely has to be their rediscovery of self-control beginning in Game 3. Everyone in the world but the Hawks could see that the Blues were taking Chicago out of their game with the chippiness of the first two games in St. Louis. Credit Coach Quenneville for calling off his dogs a bit. Credit him as well for gaining control over his own emotions. A team cannot help but take on the personality of the man behind the bench, and Quenneville, with all his screaming and crotch-grabbing was out of pocket at times in St. Louis. Quenneville has had a Phil Jackson-esque handle on the psyche of his team over the years, and surely he understood he needed to pull himself back from the ledge after the heartbreak of those overtime losses. Also, Coach Q’s patented line shuffling has added spark to the team. Moving Bryan Bickell up to play with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane (or Marian Hossa) was a nice touch, and Bickell has responded like it was 2013 with his late equalizer in Game 4. Ben Smith was a godsend at the end of Game 4, playing with indefatigable energy, and assisting on Kane’s OT winner. I would love to see more of him centering Kane and Patrick Sharp. Let Michal Handzus concentrate on his (excellent) penalty killing. We all know he could use the extra rest.
With the triumph of Games 3 and 4 in Chicago, it’s startling how easy it’s been to forget the devastation of those first two losses in St. Louis. Let’s face it. Those were some very tough defeats. A lesser team would’ve folded after that kind of heartbreak. Kudos for the Hawks for having short memories. Even as bad as the Hawks have looked at times, they really could’ve swept this series if a couple of bounces had gone their way. I had nightmares about Patrick Sharp’s failed breakaway in the second overtime in Game 1. How many times have we seen him finish those? Game 2 was one of the cruelest losses I can remember the Blackhawks experiencing (maybe only second to the Alex Burrows Game 7 loss to Vancouver). Its amazing how close Game 2 was to becoming a completely different story. Before Vladimir Tarasenko’s game-tying goal with six seconds left, the Hawks had killed off nearly six minutes of penalties, spending much of that penalty time down two men. If they can last just six more seconds, we’re talking about one of the great PK stands of all time to end a playoff game. But six seconds can sometimes be an eternity. Such is the masochism of the NHL playoffs.
(Unfortunately, rewatching this does not change the result).
Crawford is Key
Goaltending is the key to the rest of this series, and I’m not sure that bodes well for the Blackhawks. I like Corey Crawford as much as the next guy, but he’s let in some questionable goals in this series. The Barrett Jackman OT winner in Game 2 was the worst gaffe, but I didn’t like Jaden Schwartz’s game-tying goal in Game 1 or Tarasenko’s go-ahead score in the 3rd period of Game 4 either. Crawford’s worst offense is giving up goals late, something he’s done too often in his career. To me, the mark of a premier goalie is holding a lead. Growing up, I would marvel at how greats like Patrick Roy or Dominik Hasek, seemingly through sheer will, would not allow their teams to lose games in the 3rd period. I’ve never seen that in Corey. He’s often good, but too rarely great. The Hawks likely will require greatness to pull this series out.