Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Dramatic Blackhawks Advance to Original Six Clash with Bruins

Call them the cardiac kids, a team with a flair for the dramatic and a penchant for scoring clutch goals. The Blackhawks, with a tense, epic double-overtime victory over the Los Angeles Kings, advance to face the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final in a game surpassed in electrifying moments perhaps only by their own Game 7 victory over Detroit in the previous series. Unlike the Detroit series, however, here the Hawks clinched the series in Game 5. And yet, with the desire to advance to their second Stanley Cup Final in the last four seasons combined with their ability to close out the defending champs, the victory in this game added yet another spectacular moment to an already memorable season.
When Patrick Kane scored late in the third to give the Hawks a 3-2 lead - his second goal of the night - everyone thought it was over. The fans at the United Center, the broadcast team, the fans watching in the bars and homes across the Chicagoland area, and sadly, perhaps even the Hawks players, all thought that they had sealed their trip to the final. How wrong we all were (and considering how this postseason has gone, we should have known better), as the Kings scored a freakish goal with 9 seconds left that leveled a sold-out UC crowd and muted Hawks fans everywhere watching the game.

But these Hawks have been there before. Only a few games before, in Game 7 of the Detroit series, the Hawks had experienced a similarly gutpunching, deflating moment when Niklas Hjalmarsson's supposed game-winner was waived off in an atrocious call for the ages. We all remember how the Hawks responded there, heading into the locker room before overtime only to emerge with fiery, intense play that resulted in Brent Seabrook's epic winning wrister.

Here, the Hawks had to do it for two overtimes. The first overtime was littered with missed chances, both from the Hawks and the relentless Kings. It wasn't until the second overtime where the Hawks finally capitalized on a two-on-one, a perfect sequence between two world class players who have come to represent this Hawks franchise.

Of course it was Kane and Toews. It was a perfect moment between two superstars who have played together since they were teenagers in their rookie seasons. The calmness of their breakout, with the perfect pass from Toews and the equally perfect finish from Kane only seemed to foreshadow the chaos of the celebration that was to come. These Hawks, who have come so far since the 2010 Cup season, exploded along with the fans at the UC. It was the best way to clinch the West and move on to the final round of the postseason.

For Kane (who knows a thing or two about clutch goals), the score served the dual purpose of both advancing the Hawks to the Final as well as giving him a hat trick on the night. It is no coincidence that the resurgence of the Hawks' offense in the past couple games has come with the resurgence of Patrick Kane, perhaps all started with the goal he "stole" from Bryan Bickell in the previous game. Kane was everywhere in the game, finally getting back to his roots as a dynamic, change-of-pace speedster/maestro with the puck. Kane simply stopped dancing around, stopped looking for the fancy pass, quit pressing the issue, and did what he does best: score goals.

Kane's resurgence has been key
Kane's reemergence as the athletic, superior offensive player was symbolic of the Hawks as a whole in the series. The Kings, as I wrote before, presented an interesting opponent for the Hawks because they were a physical, big, grind it out team as opposed to the puck-possession scheme of the Red Wings. The Hawks knew they needed to focus on maximizing their own strengths - namely, puck possession, speed, offensive skill, transition, and forechecking - instead of trying to match or accommodate the Kings' game. Sure, there were certain stretches (and I assure you they drove me mad) where the Hawks would slip, losing some of their intensity and looking instead to match the Kings hit for hit instead of pouring shot after shot on Jonathan Quick. But for the most part, especially when it mattered most like both overtimes of Game 5, the Hawks stuck to the guns and the results showed.

I focused a lot heading into this series on the lack of across the board production from each player that had become the trademark of the team this season. I was hoping for more from Jonathan Toews, but then I kept reminding myself of all the little things that he does besides scoring that make him such a special player. And really, I started to realize that one trait that makes this team so dangerous is that opposing teams don't have a concrete idea of where the offense can come from on a given night. A player like Bickell (who has made himself some serious change this postseason), proved to be the thorn in the Kings' side for most of the series. Toews will reappear as the veteran star captain always has, and if he does so while Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Kane, Bickell, and the rest remain hot, the Hawks will be difficult to beat.

Before getting into a quick look at Boston, I wanted to mention the defense and goaltending. I have been impressed by Duncan Keith the entire season, especially the postseason, but I couldn't have been happier with the play of Hjalmarsson, specifically in Game 4 as he filled in for the suspended Keith. Seabrook, Keith, Hjalmarsson, Johnny Oduya, Nick Leddy, and the underrated Michal Rozsival all executed the Hawks' system of puck possession/forechecking/pinching/puck clearing as well as you can for most of the series.

Corey Crawford, though, has established himself as an upper echelon goaltender. He's had his weak moments in the postseason, but as the all-world Jonathan Quick showed several times in the series, every goaltender does. I hope there comes a point where we can all stop focusing on each Crawford error and take his body of work as a whole. He's been a rock for the Hawks this entire season, and has showed his ability to ride through adversity and come up big when it matters most. Here's to hoping he continues this in the Final.

Boston is a dangerous, veteran team
Could the NHL have asked for a better matchup? Two Original Six teams meeting in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1979. Two rabid hockey fanbases in two great sports towns that have played a key role in reestablishing the NHL after a damaging lockout. We can only hope that the average sports fan tunes in and catches some of the Stanley Cup final - they'd be witnessing the culmination of the best playoffs that any sport has.

Both of these clubs enter the Final on a tear. The Bruins swept the East favorite Penguins to advance, while the Hawks used the momentum from their Game 7 win over Detroit to take down the Kings in 5. Both of the teams have star power and depth. Each team has a terrific defense, good goaltending, elite penalty killing and a woeful power play. All of this leads to a potentially dramatic, nail-biting series that the Hawks seem tailor made for.

Boston will give the Hawks all sorts of trouble. They're a balanced offensive team that plays similar to the Hawks in terms of looking to capitalize off turnovers and puck possession, but they also play with a physicality that the Hawks just endured with the Kings. They love to use their defense to facilitate their offense, and use huge players like Zdeno Charo to shake teams off their games. The Bruins are loaded with stars, just like the Hawks, with the ability to roll out line after line with the likes of Milan Lucic, David Krecjci, Nathan Horton, Brad Marchand, Jaromir Jagr, Tyler Seguin, and Patrice Bergeron. A pivotal matchup here will be Krecjci (the points leader in the playoffs) against Toews, who has struggled at times if the opposing top center gets into him. Here, again, the Hawks really miss the old Dave Bolland and his ability to get under the skin of opposing centers.

Because of how evenly matched these teams are, a lot could come down to the defense. The ability of the Hawks to clear the puck will be important here, as well as Crawford staying away from soft goals. The Hawks will need to stay focused and disciplined in not succumbing to the Bruins' desire to get physical. Even though the Bruins' power play has been just as bad as the Hawks, trust me, you want to avoid Chara's slapshot - especially given the Hawks' continued failure to clear traffic in front of Crawford.

Keith must spark a better power play
Conversely, though, the key to the series could ultimately be the Blackhawks' power play. The unit should be elite, considering the firepower on it, but for far too long the Hawks seem to press, failing to adjust to the penalty killing strategy of other teams stacking the blue line. If the Hawks can get their excellent forechecking working on the power play, maintaining enough possession in the Bruins' zone instead of dumping and chasing missed opportunities, they should be able to use their skill to work the puck around and get shots on net. Merely getting back to basics and executing power play fundamentals would be a marked improvement. For a series as even as this one, it could come down to that one single area that makes a difference. And really, all we can do is offer predictions based on how each of these teams have played in their conference as this is the first matchup between the East and West this season. All bets are off.

Given the Hawks' nearly endless supply of dramatic moments, it's only appropriate that we are on the eve of a Stanley Cup Final that could provide even more. The Hawks are led by veteran star players (much like the Bruins) who know how to handle big moments, and if there's anything we've learned this postseason, the Hawks never give up and always try to find a way to come up big when it counts. This is the Stanley Cup Final - it's supposed to be difficult. This Hawks' team must find a way to continue this magical season and culminate it with the only appropriate ending - their second Cup in four years.