At what point do Hawks fans start humming Katie Perry when they think of their hockey team? We’re four games into the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, and the best way to describe the Blackhawks is hot and cold.
Game One: the Blackhawks don’t show up at all, despite being at home in front of a raucus crowd. The final score, despite two if Nashville’s goals, was appropriate to the effort on the ice. The Hawks got blown out.
Game Two: the Blackhawks come to play, hammer the Predators, even the series. The alarms that went off after Game One are silent. The knee-jerk reactions are in full swing, and I’m fully guilty of leading the charge. Antti Niemi played well in the first game, but dominated the Preds in the second for his first career postseason shutout.
Game Three: epic failure. Nothing went right, nobody showed up, and the Hawks got blasted. Even coach Joel Quenneville looked out-of-sorts, juggling his lines and keeping key contributors like Troy Brouwer off the ice for the entire third period. It showed on the ice, as passes were missing players by yards and spacing was miserable.
The world was falling. Chicago became a collective Chicken Little; the sky was falling, and nobody knew what to do.
Game Four: the same song and dance as Game Two. Niemi was exceptional, keeping all 33 shots he faced out of the net, and earning the second shutout of his young playoff career. This time, though, the defense in front of him included Brian Campbell, and it showed. The Hawks were much better at getting the puck out of their zone, the minutes were more spread out on the blue line, and the upgrade from Jordan Hendry to Dustin Byfuglien as a fifth defenseman was big.
So here we are, tied at two games apiece. What do we take away from Thursday night?
Brent Sopel was much better, and it showed beyond his line on the box score. Frankly, the official scorer giving him credit for only two blocked shots feels like robbery because he spent enough time on his stomach on Thursday night to get a text message from Tiger Woods. He skated 24:22 andwas instrumental in the Hawks killing all five of the Preds power plays; Sopel skated 6:13 short-handed in the game, the highest on the team.
Niklas Hjalmarsson, who has been arguably the best player on the Blackhawks blue line in the series, was also a warrior on the PK. He skated just under six minutes short-handed, and was also credited with two blocked shots. In one crucial stretch in the second period, Sopel, Hjalmarsson and Jonathan Toews killed a five-on-three for over 80 seconds. The Blackhawks had just jumped to a three-goal lead, but a score there could have stolen some momentum for the home team. No dice.
Campbell skated over 14 minutes in his first game since breaking his collarbone and a rib in mid-March, and looked good. He was even credited with a hit and a blocked shot in the game.
Bryan Bickell, who spent most of the season in Rockford and who was only active because Quenneville decided to mix up the lineup showed up big. On the scoresheet, he had an assist, two hits and was +2 for the night. But his presence in front of Pekka Rinne, traffic around the net, and physical approach jumped off the screen. He brought a dynamic to the ice that had been lacking in the first three games, and should stay active for the rest of the Hawks postseason.
Finally, it was good to see Captain Serious, Toews, live up to the responsibility he owned after the Game Three loss. After only one assist and a -3 rating through three games, Toews had a goal and an assist in 19:55 on Thursday. Marian Hossa, who was also -3 entering Thursday, was +2 in the game with an assist as well.
Saturday is Game Five. The odd-numbered games haven’t treated the Blackhawks well so far in the series, but this is back in Chicago. Would the real Chicago Blackhawks please stand up?