Sunday, April 25, 2010

The good, the bad, and the ugly: Looking at game 6

It's almost funny - most Blackhawks fans were worried about facing Detroit for round 1, but I was more worried about teams like, oh.... Nashville.

While everybody else was busy keeping an eye on the strong leading teams - Chicago, Washington, Vancouver, San Jose - Nashville found a style of play that worked well for them, and rode it through the season to secure themselves a firm spot in the playoffs. It was the late-season surge by Detroit, the last-minute jostling among the standings, plus Chicago being unable to pull out just one more point, that ended up aligning the stars for the Blackhawks and the Predators to face off in round one as the 2nd and 7th-seeds.

Watching the disaster unfold in game one at the United Center, fans could be forgiven for thinking that maybe, just maybe, the Blackhawks players perhaps bought into their own hype and marketing a little too much. The first two periods, it could've been anybody's game, and Chicago had barely squeezed a single point ahead by the time the second period ended. The third period was nothing short of a disaster, as the team didn't seem to have any of the energy or drive of the first 40 minutes, and they went from 1-0 to 1-4. What happened? Did they think the Preds were going to lay down for a single-point win?

Game two was a different story. The Hawks were clearly out to set the record straight after being embarassed in their own house two nights earlier, and they sailed out with a dominant game, Antti Niemi racking up a shutout, and just looking like a very different team overall.

On to Nashville to game three - well, that game was so bad I hardly want to talk about it, but let's dredge on anyway. After a decent first period, the Hawks momentum drained out like air out of a tire - WHY? - and Nashville stomped on them to make the series 2-1, Preds favor. The team just looked disjointed on the ice, and while Niemi worked hard, he couldn't steal a win for the team.

Still in Nashville for game 4, the team roused itself and started showing life and a glimmer of the Blackhawk team that we know is there. And as much as I really like Niemi as a player and a goalie - he's been incredible this season when the Hawks have desperately needed it - I can't say that his performance in game four was the sole reason for him to rack up another shutout. No - Chicago defense finally showed up and demonstrated what they're capable of. Game four was a team effort, and they managed to show a glimmer of what they're capable of, and were rewarded with a shutout win.

Returning home for game 5, I must say I was starting to worry about the series looking like the Star Trek film franchise - only the even-numbered games being winners. Nashville scored first on a well-screened, well-aimed shot, and Chicago was able to respond with two goals by the time the first period was done. Both teams racked up another point in the second.

The Blackhawks were *there* for the first forty minutes. They played hard, they played fast, and despite Nashville scoring, they were taking it to the Predators' net frequently and playing the kind of beautiful, amazing hockey that we all know they're capable of playing.

And then it was two more in Nashville's favor, leaving Chicago's fans to wonder - why, why, why? - have the Blackhawks only showed up for two of three periods far too often this season, many times only scraping out wins by the seat of their pants.

Speaking of pants, Niemi had an interesting couple of minutes late in the first when a puck disappeared into his gear. I've seen a lot of bloggers and reporters slamming his play in this game, and I'm not about to make any excuses either, but seriously - how well would you play after a couple referees fished around in your pants and gave you a TSA-worthy frisking on national television?

Finally, with just over a minute left on the clock, a puck chase near the Predators' goal led to Marian Hossa hitting Nashville player Dan Hamhuis, getting charged with a five-minute major boarding penalty - it looked like Chicago would be taking another loss, and then head back south with a long shot to win the series.

Late in the period, the Blackhawks had begun to show life again, but it also looked like too little, too late; was the penalty going to slam the door shut on the team?

Showing the kind of grit and desperation that we have thus far not witnessed nearly enough of in the series, the Blackhawks executed a beautiful play and Patrick Kane tossed in the game-tying goal with 13 seconds left on the clock.

Thirteen seconds.

This game became one for the team - and the NHL's - history books. Kane was the first player to score a SHG (short-handed goal) in the last minute of regulation play to take a team into overtime.

Nashville should've had it. They were thirteen seconds from leading the series 3-2. And as overtime started, there were still 4 minutes on Hossa's penalty, which should have given them ample time to take advantage and score.

But, as Chicago has proved over and over again this season, they came up in the clutch. Niemi might've been spotty earlier in the game, but in OT he showed why he's been dubbed the "Finnish Fortress", shutting down five shots in four minutes. Chicago surged to recover, and in the midst of a scramble in front of the Nashville box, Hossa's release from the penalty box was perfectly timed, and he put in the winning goal.

It's 24 hours later, and myself - and countless fans and writers - are still busy talking about the game. The ending was that amazing.

The other thing that have had people talking a lot about the game was Hossa's hit on Hamhuis. There were immediate comparisons to Alex Ovechkin's hit on Brian Campbell which broke Soupy's collarbone and fractured his rib, and took him out of play for six weeks. Ovechkin received a two-game suspension for that hit, but he also had a record for malicious hits.

On the one bright spot, Hamhuis got off the ice under his own power, and didn't sustain any injuries that would take him out of play for future games. Maybe if he'd been injured, Hossa would've been yanked from the game and/or received a suspension, something more in line with Ovechkin's penalty.

Hossa's hit was so unusual for him, as a player, that combined with the fact he came back out onto the ice to win the game, it's not surprising that it was an immediate controversy.

Of course, if Kane hadn't scored in the last seconds to press overtime, and Nashville had been able to score in OT before Chicago did, it is very likely that the NHL's ruling on the hit would not have been met with as much disbelief on Sunday, as many people - myself included - expected Hossa to at least be hit with a one-game suspension.

National Hockey League Executive VP and Director of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell issued this statement today, regarding the NHL's ruling on Hossa:

"I have made the decision that this play does not warrant supplemental discipline after considering all of the facts, including reviewing the video and speaking with Mr. Hossa. This play is distinguishable from recent incidents by a number of factors, including the degree of contact involved; the fact that the consequences of the play do not appear to be as severe; that this was a hockey play involving a race for the puck; that Mr. Hossa is not a repeat offender and that the call of a major penalty by the Referee was significant and appropriate."

The Blackhawks know how very, very, very lucky they were to get that double reprieve - not only to not lose Hossa for any games, but for not to be heading to Nashville down one game.

If they remember this lesson - if they play their skates off - if they don't let the building get to them and simply focus on what's going on out on the ice - if they have a good D game instead of their "maybe/maybe not" D game - then they can close this game out on Monday night in Nashville.

That's an awful lot of "ifs".

And Nashville is going to look to take advantage of each and every one of them.

Nashville is going to come out playing like sharks smelling blood in the water. They're going to be mad because they didn't win on Saturday in Chicago. They're going to be annoyed that Hossa didn't get at least one game suspension for the hit. The Blackhawks should expect to face a hard-hitting, determined, gritty team that will hope to capitalize on any mistakes they make. 

So the Hawks will need to play smarter, play harder, and not make the kind of stupid, sloppy play that has so far marked the series for them so far.

Can the Blackhawks make it to the final series?

Yes, absolutely - if they stop paying attention to the marketing and the hype and the expectations, and instead focus on their skills, their play, and getting the job done. They need to stop having last-minute miracles rescue them at the last minute, and instead pay attention to the old Samuel Goldwyn quote: "The harder I work, the luckier I get."

Dear Blackhawks: we, the fans, have faith in you. 

We know it's in you - now show us what we know you're capable of.

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