CHICAGO | Consider the Blackhawks awakened without the use of caffeine.
And properly chastened and humbled.
The pushed-to-the-brink series with the Detroit Red Wings was just what the Hawks needed to regain their record-breaking mojo. Coach Joel Quenneville, never in Mike Ditka’s, Lou Piniella’s or Ozzie Guillen’s league as a scintillating quote, was spot-on when he observed his team upgraded to playoff-tough thanks to the scare administered by their arch rivals.
Not that the Hawks were slackers. They simply lacked the sense of urgency reflected in their play since the end of record 24-game streak without a regulation loss. Remember late winter? The Hawks flew around the ice in firehouse fashion, blasting through all challengers like every night was Game 7.
But when the streak was over and the countdown began to the postseason, there was nothing left to play for. The playoffs were clinched. Home ice in the Western Conference was a given. The President’s Trophy didn’t even come down to the last weekend. Human nature dictates an easing on the accelerator.
Then the need to play with skill and aggressiveness shown in the regular-season streak became critical when the Red Wings recovered from the brutal West Coast travel of their seven-game quarterfinals victory over the Anaheim Ducks.
The Hawks found it hard automatically to turn on the switch again after practically coasting through the first round against the much inferior Minnesota Wild. They finally did, barely in the nick of time, in the first Wings elimination contest of Game 5 at the United Center.
Some Chicago teams ran out of time in the postseason before they could recharge. See the 2008 Cubs against the Los Angeles Dodgers as the prime example of a regular-season dominating team out of synch, even jittery and nervous.
In Game 5, the Hawks bolted out of the locker room and deployed both skill and toughness as soon as the puck dropped. The Wings’ initial attempts to lay bodies on them were neutralized. Now a really big team, the Kings, will play it for keeps in physicality.
The book on the Hawks is to try to push them around and prevent them from playing with the puck. But when the Hawks have been at their best, when the stars earn their paychecks — the tough guys can’t beat down everyone, every minute on the ice — the tactics usually fall prey to skill. Why does everyone in the NHL talk of the Hawks with utmost respect?
As in all other playoff series since the Stanley Cup run in 2010, if the Hawks’ stars come out at night, they can hardly be deterred. Jonathan Toews has some make-goods due in his production. Patrick Kane became a big-time player this season, and all he needs is to display some of that in the postseason. Marian Hossa can carry the team when he’s on. The Kings and stingy goalie Jonathan Quick can’t shut down everyone.
Quick has the reputation and last year’s championship, but Corey Crawford has passed with flying colors into NHL manhood. He can keep the Kings at bay until his teammates catch a break against Quick.
Seven is the lucky number. I had the Hawks in seven against Detroit. Book that same forecast against the Kings. The President’s Trophy does matter with its home-ice advantage.
George Castle covers Chicago sports for The Times of Northwest Indiana. He has been writing about Chicago professional teams for more than three decades. Reach him at DGemsNet@aol.com.