(Photo: Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)
Being a sports fan in the playoffs is sort of like being in a hurry stuck in traffic. You can only go as fast as the slowest car in front of you.
And, as a fan, you’re stuck…cheering, swearing, pouting, cheering, hoping, and, sometimes wallowing. You are passionate about them, but hindered by the team’s performance.
You have no control over it–even if you try. And, try I do. I follow traditions. I wear my team’s gear on game days. If they’re winning, I wear the same thing multiple games, unwashed. If they’re losing, I change.
I don’t speak ahead of any given moment. I don’t talk about the C-U-P. I try to avoid insulting the other team.
I would never chant the opposing goalie’s name, for example.
No jinxes. No bad juju.
Sure, it doesn’t make a difference in the grand scheme of things; but it does help to feel like you have a little control over something.
So, in Round 1, when the Blackhawks lost Game 1 and Game 2 against the St. Louis Blues, I was riddled with anxiety. But they managed to pull through in the next four consecutive games and take the series with a glorious Game 6 victory.
Then, in Round 2, the Blackhawks took the first two games at home before giving up two in Minnesota. They, again, closed the series in six games–winning the next home game and the following one on the road.
But, in both of those series, without even playing the best hockey I know Chicago is capable of, they still managed to fight their way through.
And then, they came out strong in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final, continuing a home win streak that helped them get through their first two rounds.
Then, they went to Los Angeles. For me, the Blackhawks had to take a game on the road. I needed it for my own sanity.
But, the Kings took Game 3. Then, despite opportunities for comebacks, the Hawks fell again in Game 4, giving the Kings a 3-1 series lead.
Tonight, the Blackhawks take on the Kings again, in a make-it-or break-it game. If they lose, the season is over for them and those of us who follow them closely, planning our weeks and meals around their schedules.
It’s exhilarating. It’s terrifying. I coin it “fanxiety.” I can only watch, yell instructions at the screen about shooting the puck instead of passing and avoiding irresponsible penalties, and hope the team I’ve seen overcome serious competition decides to show up on the ice.
“You accept it. It’s another challenge. These are some of the (most) fun moments and moments you look forward to your whole life, to try to get up for these games and play in these situations,” Patrick Kane said. “I think the biggest thing with our team is we like to have fun. No better situation than where we’re in right now to get ourselves out of it, play in front of our home crowd, Game 5 and it’s a must-win game. I think we welcome that challenge.”
The defending champions could be packing up their hopes and dreams tonight, along with ours. And so, I grasp at the 3-1 comeback in the second round last year against the Detroit Redwings for a little comfort.
“You can reach for what you’ve been through, you can look back to what happened to last year’s (second-round series vs. Detroit) — which was a much different animal, the L.A. Kings from the Detroit Red Wings of last year,” announcer and former Blackhawk Eddie Olczyk said. “But this team has been able to handle adversity. This is the biggest adversity they’ve faced in a long, long time and an opportunity… to extend the series.”
Coach Joel Quenneville reflects on last year’s Game 5 against the Redwings as well.
“We came in here excited about being at home, taking advantage of the home crowd,” he said. “I don’t want to say be loose, but let’s be excited about the opportunity. Let’s go. We got to win one game here.”
So they’ll focus on one thing at a time. They’ll play shift-to-shift.
“Win the first period, go from there,” Quenneville said. “You look back over this series, we lost three games with three one-period stretches where we uncharacteristically gave up quantity and preventable goals. We have a to make sure that’s the area we shore up. Let’s focus on winning our battles in those one-shift areas.”
Brandon Saad practiced with Andrew Shaw and Kane this morning. Captain Jonathan Toews, Bryan Bickell, and Kane started together Monday despite a different line combination practicing. Quenneville is known to change lines early and often.
“The thing that separates the Blackhawks from most teams in this league is the offensive difference-makers. You go back to the series against St. Louis, you go back to the series against the Minnesota Wild. We saw periods in those series, in those rounds that we saw in Game 2 (of Western Conference Final) in period three, we saw in period three in Game 3 in L.A. We saw those type of periods where the Blackhawks really struggled and had a tough time. The difference is the offensive difference-makers on L.A. They’re a good team,” Olczyk said. “Sometimes you’ve got to acknowledge and tip your helmet. These guys are big, they’ve got guys that can score.
“That to me is the difference in this series to this point is that when the Hawks have struggled, the Kings have capitalized, and there’s something to that. They’ve been to the conference final three years in a row. There’s something for that.”
The Kings have depth with capability for scoring, and they’re hot.
In order to pull through tonight and even think of advancing, they’ll need to clean up several areas–particularly with special teams, goaltending, and offensive star power.
Patrick Sharp, who led the teams in goals during the regular season, has had three goals and four assists in the entire postseason. Kane has had one assist and no goals against the Kings.
Goaltender Corey Crawford‘s save percentage has dropped from .971 before this series to .800.
They’ve allowed five goals during 10 penalty kills–50 percent. Before the Western Conference Final, the Hawks led the league in Kills, at 91.3 percent.
One way to avoid that is to stay out of the penalty box, avoiding unnecessary penalties.
Monday, the Hawks were unable to score during three power play opportunities. They last scored a Power Play goal away during Game 1 in St. Louis when Shaw provided a screen for Brent Seabrook.
“It’s always nice to start with the puck, especially on special teams,” Quenneville said. “I think that’s the area where our power play last game didn’t really start with the puck, slowed it down.”
Everyone needs a big contribution for any sort of comeback, though. It starts with one thing.
“Um … shots,” Seabrook said. “You know, we’ve got to get stuff at the net and I think that’s the biggest key. We haven’t had a lot of shots in the series on our power play, especially on the road. We’ve got to come in with better possession and if we’re not being able to cross the line, we’ve got to do different things to be able to get possession and try to get good looks.”
That doesn’t end with the Power Play. This team has to shoot and shoot often. The more time they spend in the offensive zone, the fewer opportunities that leaves for the depth of the Kings’ team to take over. Fancy passing plays, while impressive, don’t score goals.
“Sometimes trying to make that extra play or the pretty play isn’t going to work against these guys,” Seabrook said. “We’ve got to find a way to get pucks to the net, get guys in front and bang it in, ugly goals. We start doing that and things might start changing.”
Hmm… maybe all of that yelling at the TV does pay off.
The rest of the series is scheduled, tentatively (and if necessary) as follows:
Game 5 Wed, May 28 7:00 p.m. CT United Center NBCSN
Game 6 Fri, May 30 8:00 p.m. CT Staples Center NBCSN (if necessary)
Game 7 Sun, June 1 7:00 p.m. CT United Center NBCSN (if necessary)
The winner of the series will go on to play the winner of the New York Rangers-Montreal Canadiens series, which the Rangers now lead 3-2.
For me, and for other Blackhawks fans, I pray to Lord Stanley for a Chicago win tonight, Because it’s the Cup.