CHICAGO – As the Blackhawks made their way through another playoff handshake line last week, the evidence that fatigue had set in became increasingly evident.
Over six grueling games, the hard-checking style the Minnesota Wild had flummoxed the Hawks with had taken its toll. At least from the outside, it appeared that the defending Stanley Cup champions, postseason stamina was starting to dwindle.
Could the Hawks – in the midst of their second straight lengthy postseason run – be running out of gas? Was it possible that a pair of difficult six-game series against St. Louis and Minnesota hadn’t left the Hawks much in the way of reserve heading into the Western Conference final against the Los Angeles Kings?
But one by one Thursday morning, Hawks players – along with coach Joel Quenneville – insisted that wasn’t the case. Instead, despite being pushed to the limit physically and mentally by the Wild, the Hawks believe that they can elevate their level of play now eight victories away from another Stanley Cup championship.
“At the end of the day, we came out on top and that’s the most important thing,” said right wing Patrick Kane, whose overtime goal in Tuesday night’s 2-1 win advanced the Hawks to the Western Conference final. “If that means we go through every series like that and come out on top, I think all of us would take it.
“But we know we have another level in here and we know we can get to it.”
Minnesota’s ability to limit scoring chances with a suffocating defensive style frustrated the Hawks, who won the series despite being woefully outplayed in Game 6. But Quenneville said too often, having to endure such a challenge by winning ugly can leave the impression that a skillful team is slipping in its effectiveness.
Yet, as he reviewed game film, Quenneville said any concerns over how well his team is playing at this stage of the playoffs are unfounded.
“People might think we didn’t play very well against Minnesota,” Quenneville said Thursday. “I’ll discount that 100 percent knowing that we just beat a heck of a hockey team that plays a game that doesn’t make it look pretty in order to get through it.”
The opportunity to rest since Tuesday night’s series-clinching victory allowed the Hawks to heal as well as to catch their breath before facing the Kings. At this point of the playoffs, Quenneville said every player still skating is dealing with injury issues in addition to the fatigue that comes with playing at such a high level.
But to misconstrue that as a team that doesn’t have much left, the players said, would be a mistake.
Although the Wild series was “mentally frustrating,” according to Hawks left wing Bryan Bickell, the combination of advancing and taking advantage some down time while waiting for the Kings and Ducks to finish their second-round series is enough – players agree – to find the next gear the Hawks believe they are capable of playing at.
“I think guys are feeling good,” left wing Brandon Saad said. “It’s been a long couple seasons, but this is the most exciting time of the year. So every round, I think the intensity picks up and we’re looking forward to getting it going.”