The Chicago Blackhawks didn’t skate Saturday, but they know there’s hard work ahead if they hope to sweep the San Jose Sharks on Sunday. Even they admit they’ve had some fortune in getting out to a 3-0 lead in the Western Conference finals.
“We look at the series against San Jose; each game could go either way,” Patrick Sharp said Saturday. “We know we are fortunate to be up 3-0. We know we have to play our best game to close them out.
“I know it's one game away, but the old cliché -- the fourth one is the hardest to win.”
There have been two 3-0 leads in the NHL this postseason, and neither time has the leading team won its next game. San Jose dropped a 7-1 affair to the Detroit Red Wings, and, of course, the Philadelphia Flyers won four in a row over the Boston Bruins. In fact, even up 3-1, the Blackhawks, Washington Capitals, Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins did not win their next game. Only Philadelphia, in the quarterfinals, was able to put away the New Jersey Devils on its first try.
“I think all the games have been close,” Duncan Keith said. “I know we were able to get the two wins in San Jose, and they were two big wins. I thought Antti [Niemi] played great in those games and made a lot of huge saves. Sometimes when your goaltender is making those big saves, making the kind of plays that he is at critical times in the game, it really changes the whole dynamic of the game.”
In other words, sometimes you can get outplayed -- as the Blackhawks did in the third period on Friday -- and still win because your goaltender is at the top of his game. It’s why it’s arguably the most important position in sports. Two 44-save performances by Niemi have more than helped the Hawks to their 3-0 lead.
In a strange statistical twist, a Hawks regular-season strength has made a nominal difference this postseason. They’ve been outshot five times in 15 playoff games. That might not sound like much, but it happened only 13 times in 82 games from October to mid-April. Luckily, they’re 4-1 in those five games, thanks in part to Niemi.
In any case, Keith is wrong about one thing: Game 2 was not close. The Hawks owned the Sharks in that contest. The other two, however, could have gone either way.
The Blackhawks are trying to keep from getting too excited about what will happen if they win one more game, yet they also are using a Stanley Cup finals appearance as a carrot going into Game 4.
“I think you can use that as motivation,” Keith said. “That's what we're playing for. We're all playing here for the Stanley Cup. You know, we're one win away from getting a chance to play for it.”
Hawks coach Joel Quenneville is stressing the same thing he has for the past 97 games.
“I think our concentration is strictly [Sunday], and we're not thinking about anything but [Sunday’s] game,” he said.
One good point made by several Hawks is the difference between Games 1 through 82 and the postseason. It goes back to leadership and buying into the team concept.
“I mean, over the regular season, I would say it probably didn't matter as much,” Jonathan Toews said of players’ roles. “Not taking anything away from how hard we worked over the regular season, but I think we had a very talented team. We found ways to win games even if we weren't playing our best hockey.
“But this time of year, it's entirely different. You’ve got to be on top of things. I think guys are hopping over the boards with, you know, specific jobs and things they need to do in their mind.”
See Dave Bolland & Co. for proof of that last statement.
As for the Sharks, they also believe they’ve played better than a 3-0 deficit would indicate. It’s the same deficit Detroit faced against San Jose last round. The Sharks lost Game 4 but won the next one.
“When I addressed the team this morning… the first thing I told them, I wasn't going to stand up there and be a cheerleader,” Sharks coach Todd McLellan explained. “Based on my experience and maybe the Detroit thing, when you're down 3-0, there's often times where you got to go in and you got to give 'em the speech. It's just not going your way. You're trying to convince them they still have a chance.
“It didn't feel like that. Doesn't feel like that in our locker room. We felt like we played with this team all along. The fact is we're still down 3-0. But I didn't go in there to become a cheerleader. I went in there to reassure them that everything was fine and that we would not fine, but everything was OK -- and we would be approaching the game with a must-win mentality, like we always do.”
The strategy in these situations is pretty simple.
“We'd like to come out, throw everything we have, play loose against Chicago, then put a little pressure on them after that,” McLellan said. “We've got to take Step 1 first.”
It’s why closing out a team in four or five games is harder than you might think. A team that's down 3-0 can take chances and play loose. That could easily win the opponent a game. It rarely wins you four.
--Unlike before Game 3, the Hawks have decided not to stay in a hotel on Saturday night in advance of their day game on Sunday.
“Early start [Sunday]," Sharp said. “We're going to stay at home. That's good news for me. I'm sure you have heard [Adam] Burish is my roommate. Any time you can get a few hours away from him, it's a good thing for me. Hopefully we get the same result.”