Saturday, June 1, 2013

Blackhawks Advance After a Game 7 For the Ages

There are certain times in sports when you realize why you care so much. Why you're such a big fan. Why it matters so much to you. There are certain times that transcend reality, that transcend sports, where you feel almost bonded with a team, or maybe a player, or maybe an overall sport. It doesn't happen often, but those fleeting moments are the reason why you care for each and every shift, each and every period, each and every game, each and every series, and each and every season. Wednesday night was one of those instances.

The way the Hawks played, the way the game went, the way that the series had gone - it was simply unbelievable. I haven't experienced much like it in my sports life. I felt personally wronged when the Niklas Hjarmalsson goal was taken out, like someone had just hurt a family member or friend or cheated them in some way. I don't know if I've ever lived shift to shift, minute to minute, or shot to shot in any other sport in quite the same way. Of course, there's Michael's Bulls teams, the Super Bowl Bears, the 2010 Hawks Cup team, the 2005 Illini basketball team and a few others scattered in my years watching Chicago sports. But this Hawks team has bonded and intertwined its identity with this city so well that I don't know if I've ever seen anything quite like it in my lifetime. The crowd last night had their blood running and a frenzy about them that created an atmosphere that was awe-inspiring even on TV. It's something that I can't really even properly explain in words, but I do know it's something I'll never forget.

The reaction of the crowd last night when the goal was scored, and you see the players celebrating, was a sort of jubilation that true sports fans live for. Everything that had led up to that moment in the series, given that it was against Detroit, the Hawks were down 3-1, it was a tumultuous Game 7 after a truly abhorrent penalty call, and that it was in overtime, seemed to burst out at once as the United Center practically exploded with joy. It's an incredible sight to see, and it really is hard to replicate the feeling Hawks fans had when that Brent Seabrook goal went in. See for yourself:

It's incredibly difficult to replicate that sudden feeling anywhere in life, let alone sports. You could have a walk-off home run in the World Series Joe Carter-style, or the buzzer beater in basketball, or even a game winning field goal in football to a certain extent. But nothing, given everything behind that shot, can quite reproduce the overtime Game 7 winner in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The way hockey works in the playoffs, with the sudden death aspect combined with the dearth of stoppage in play, the up and down aspect of the game, and the emotions brimming beneath the surface - it all produces a combustible mixture that you saw explode when Seabrook netted the game winner. Everything that culminated with that shot makes all the tough, want-to-throw-the-remote-against-the-wall moments in sports completely worth it.

Think about the other sports figures that were at the game. Both representatives from the Cubs and Sox, as well as the Bears, were at the game and were in awe of the atmosphere and the game itself. It's something they would rarely see in baseball but yet competitively want to strive for more than anything. The City of Chicago, from sports radio to people on the street to the conversations I heard in court the next day, was buzzing in a way that we don't see around these parts unless something truly special happens.

In life, there are these sporting moments, these times as a sports fan that transcend memories and life, creating moments that you will always remember. You'll remember where you were or you'll remember in strange detail what was going on, and this is one of them. I remember watching Jordan's last game as a Bull, and him hitting the shot to win the Championship. I remember the first Hawks' championship, specifically the Patrick Kane winner in overtime in the Cup Finals. I remember the Bartman game. I remember Devin Hester running the opening kickoff back for a touchdown in the Super Bowl, just like I remember the way the Bears came back earlier that season against Arizona on Monday Night. I remember the Illini comeback against Arizona in the 2005 NCAA Tourney. Wednesday night will be like one of those nights.

Look, I understand that it's just the semifinals. There's still two rounds to play. For me, though, the only way that night could have been more special was if it was later in the playoffs and even then it'd be tough because of everything that combined to make Seabrook's goal and the Hawks' comeback special. This is Chicago's team right now, though, and the entire city is behind the Hawks as they start the Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Kings today.

The defending-champion Kings present an interesting matchup, much more different than the Red Wings. At first glance, you notice how huge they are. From the first to the fourth line, they have tons of big forwards, illustrating the physical style of hockey that they play. In the playoffs, the ice shrinks and physical play becomes more prominent, which has played a big role in the reason behind the Kings' success the past few years. This can be a thorn in the Hawks' side, especially on the power play where they can stack the blue line like Detroit did and force the Hawks into a dump and chase style of offense.

Toews was smothered against Detroit
The Hawks shouldn't have been in a 3-1 situation with Detroit to begin with, but there are a few reasons behind it that could cause problems against the Kings. First is the lack of production by the top couple lines. The Hawks are still waiting for consistent points from Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Marian Hossa. Toews was neutralized in the Red Wings series when Mike Babcock threw Henrik Zetterberg on him nonstop. Usually, Joel Quenneville uses Dave Bolland in the playoffs to get after the opposing top centerman and thus free up some movement for Toews to do what he does best - facilitate offense. Now, though, Bolland looks so substandard that Toews is forced to do the things that Bolland did before and it has really stagnated his offensive production. He still brings it on the defensive end but the Hawks will need to find a way to either get Bolland back to his usual self or find some other way to free up Toews to make things happen.

I've loved the play of the bottom lines, especially coming from Bryan Bickell, who has made himself some money this playoff season. The Hawks, though, are still in need of a second line center who can really ensure some fluidity throughout the lines. Michal Handzus has brought some veteran savvy and has been adequate at faceoffs, but I really think the Hawks would be better suited either moving Sharp back to his natural Center position or at least have him taking faceoffs on the second line. Remember, the Hawks won the Cup in 2010 with Bolland doing what he does best on the third checking line, with Andrew Ladd as the second line center. I like Marcus Kruger more on the fourth line as a change of pace, defensive minded center who along with Michael Frolik can defend and kill penalties with the best of them. At the very least, the Hawks are going to need more production from the second line center to really overcome the size and physicality of the Kings.

The key for the Hawks is going to be creating space on the ice and using their speed and athleticism to create scoring chances against Jonathan Quick. Quick has been on fire this postseason and is asserting himself as one of the best netminders in the game. He's been matched relatively equally stats-wise with Corey Crawford, but Quick has a Cup under his belt and can be a difference-maker in his own right. In the regular season, the Hawks didn't seem to have an issue getting goals on him, scoring 12 goals on him in 3 games. But now, in the playoffs, the Hawks will need to take advantage of their strengths to maximize scoring chances.

For me, the biggest focus for the Hawks will be on the forecheck. When their forecheck is rolling, they're nearly unstoppable. The problem is, though, the Kings defense (led by Drew Doughty) and their big forwards play a physical style on the backcheck that could throw the Hawks off their game. Passing and puck possession will be the name of the game, as well as just getting pucks on net. If the Hawks can get 35-40 shots on net, it'll be hard to see them lose the series. Again, it comes down to keeping their composure, creating space, moving the puck, and getting shots on net. At times, it has looked like the Hawks are trying to hard and pressing on the forecheck. They need to just get back to basics and let their skill take over.

Keith is on top of his game
The Kings are a good offensive team, but I feel confident that the Hawks can hold their own on the defensive end against the Kings' forwards. The Kings could try to use their size to their advantage on their own forecheck, but the speed and puck skills of the Hawks' defensemen should really help here. Duncan Keith has been superb the entire postseason, and after a shaky start Seabrook has really come back. I love that Quenneville has put Keith and Seabrook back together. Notwithstanding a rough game 7, Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjarmalsson have played well, and those who have read any of these posts know how much I love Nick Leddy's game. Leddy has future #1 D-man written all over him, and he's impressive with the puck. He should be on the point with Keith on the powerplay in the least because he's a blueliner who can skate into the zone and even pinch on the forecheck to keep possession of the puck. The power play MUST improve.

Crawford has to continue to play well, and must not get rattled when the Kings have sustained possessions in the Hawks' defensive zone. He still gives up some bad soft goals, and his rebound control still slips up sometimes, but he's really come into his own as an upper-ecehlon goalie. His maturation and improvement over the course of the season - and the Detroit series alone - gives me confidence that he can continue to be that guy going forward. Crawford knows that each game going forward is still going to be looked at as an opportunity to prove himself, so hopefully he keeps it up.

The Hawks will need to come out strong in Game 1 today to seize control and momentum of the series. The Kings are also coming off a Game 7, but the Hawks have the momentum of an entire city behind them. My hope is that they can carry over the emotion from the Detroit series and come out with a fiery, intense Game 1. The fear here is a let down after the peak moment of Game 7, but from listening to Hawks players over the past few days they're going to use the Detroit series as a spark to carry them throughout the playoffs. Remember the 2010 Cup run, when they ran into Vancouver in the semifinals in a tough gritty series and used that to propel them to a sweep of the San Jose Sharks in the finals. I don't foresee a sweep or an easy series here, but what I am focusing on and hopeful for is that the same push forward after a tough series is seen here.

The Hawks come in to this series fresh off an epic, monumental comeback against a hated rival. The buzz around the city right now is crazy, and it's hard to even walk down the street without some reminder that the Hawks are the symbol of the city right now. They've given us some special moments this season, from the streak to the jubilant comeback that already has a special place in my sports memory. These are already moments that I, and Hawks fans everywhere, won't forget. Let's hope that there are plenty more to come.


Katy Korth said...

As your girlfriend and roommate, I'm happy to say that the Hawks now lead the Kings 3-1 in the Western Conference finals. Every game, it's incredible to see how much passion and knowledge you have about the players and sport in general. The journey the Hawks have been on this season reminds me of several episodes of "Game of Thrones" ...ruthless tactics and calls with sometimes devastating outcomes. However, I think they have come out on top because of the fans' support. I guarantee they love playing the game because of this amazing sports town! LET'S WIN SATURDAY!

Dave Johnsen said...

And now they start the Stanley Cup Finals tomorrow! What a ride it has been, and I'm glad you've really taken to enjoying the Hawks. It's amazing how they've captivated the city; you can bet that the entire city will be watching tomorrow. I like the GoT comparison - let's hope they get the Cup win with a little less blood and a lot less backstabbing haha. Thanks!