CHICAGO | The memorable Blackhawks-Red Wings Western Conference semifinals might as well have been the Stanley Cup Finals for its emotion, intensity and drama.
And that was all good for the Hawks as they were forced to rev up their gears and win three elimination games in a row.
The players were forced to slap their collective selves in the face in the process. Coach Joel Quenneville noticed they needed to be more playoff-ready. Nothing less will do in playing the defending Cup champion Los Angeles Kings and master goalie Jonathan Quick in the conference finals starting Saturday at the United Center.
“I think we’ve had a much tougher series than the first round,” Quenneville said. “We expect them to keep getting tougher. L.A.’s got the Cup. They’ve played two tough rounds in a row. They know how to win. I think we’ve got to make sure we’re well-prepared.
“We had to catch up to the playoff pace of other series. They got our attention in Game 2. I thought in Game 3 we progressed to play the way we have to. We captured the playoff intensity. We didn’t win either one of those games (including Game 4). I still thought this series progressed where we got better and better as we went along. We captured the right pace.”
The Hawks may have learned something about themselves as they fell behind the Wings in the series 3-1, then had to fight their way back, through a disallowed goal late in Game 7 to win in overtime.
“They’re a well-coached team and they keep coming at you,” said winger Patrick Sharp, who scored the first goal in Game 7. “Every game could have gone either way. You’ve got to be proud of yourselves in this locker room.”
The Hawks will have their hands full with the Kings, whom they beat in two of three games in the regular season.
“Quick is a great goalie, the Conn Smythe winner from last year,” Sharp said. “He’s got a great team in front of him. This was a tough series against the Wings and we’re happy to win it, but we know we have a tough challenge ahead of us.”
The Hawks will counter Quick with a Corey Crawford possessing perhaps the best rhythm of his goalie career.
“It’s only going to get harder,” Crawford said. “Obviously, this is the furthest I’ve been in the playoffs. I think everyone feels great about our group here. We just need everyone (competing) a little more.”