SAN JOSE—So, what do you do now if you’re coach Joel Quenneville?
Your Blackhawks have tied a National Hockey League record with seven consecutive road playoff victories, the latest of which was Tuesday night’s 4-2 suffocation of the San Jose Sharks. Since leaving Chicago early last week—or was it last month?—your team has closed out the Vancouver Canucks in Canada, then ventured back into the United States and skated halfway to eliminating another powerhouse from the Stanley Cup tournament.
The Blackhawks have done everything on this extended journey except stage a hostile takeover of Alcatraz, and that was a field trip, not a business trip. The Blackhawks are piling up road wins like they’re the Harlem Globetrotters, except foes aren’t stage props like the Washington Generals. So, again, what do you do if you are Coach Q? Do you keep your players out in California a little while longer and fly them in for Friday night’s Game 3 of the Western Conference final in the United Center at the last minute? Not going to happen. The Blackhawkas are due to depart here Wednesday morning.
Well, then, do you put the Blackhawks right back into a hotel in Chicago? Or do you try to fake them into thinking they’re still away when they’re at home? Do you throw a room service menu in their locker stalls, along with tiny bottles of shampoo, maybe directions on how to evacuate the building in case of a fire without using the elevator? How about a pillow with mints on it? Or, if you’re Coach Q, do you just savor how well your Blackhawks are performing and how intent they appear to be about accumulating six more Ws before they exhale?
“We haven’t won anything yet,” said Dustin Byfuglien, alias Mr. May, who scored again in rush hour traffic Tuesday night, tipping in Patrick Kane’s effort. This occurred after Andrew Ladd’s drive blunted the Sharks about when they were establishing some sort of first period momentum, and just before Jonathan Toews touched Duncan Keith’s drive to extend the captain’s post-season scoring streak to 11—a franchise mark, Stan Mikita territory. So it was 3-0, and the Shark Tank was an echo chamber of groans and occasional boos, but not for expatriate Brian Campbell.
No, the Sharks were the source of the angst. They were trying to make merry, but the fleet and feisty Blackhawks were restricting access to their zone and afforded their goalie, Antti Niemi, more protection than Game One, when he was the star with 44 saves. Tuesday night, the Blackhawks were even better, quicker and more insistent about denying the opposition time and space. The Sharks, like the Canucks, planned to shoot high on Niemi, aim for his blocker, pepper him with widebodies in front. But these plans are difficult to implement when you are rushed, crowded and leaned upon.
Patrick Marleau beat Neimi twice and Joe Thornton was involved, yet they could not escape the annoyingly effective and effectively annoying tactics of a checking line that specializes in choking lines. “He bothers us, so you can imagine how he bothers other teams,” chirped Kris Versteeg of fellow pest Dave Bolland, who took one for the Blackhawks in the third period when the Sharks, down 4-1, had to play with desperation or else.
Actually, Bolland had no choice when he stood ready for a faceoff against Thornton. But before the draw was consummated, or even begun, Big Joe put the lumber on Bolland. Two minutes for slashing .
“I think he got mixed up,” Bolland recalled. “Normally, when you take a faceoff, you go for the puck, not the wrist. I’m OK. I’m not mad at him. He’s a nice guy. It was just a love tap.”
Not exactly, but it did symbolize the Sharks’ frustration, which was palpable and communal. Two minutes earlier, the Blackhawks put a real silencer on the board, not by sitting back but pressing the issue. Marian Hossa, who is not scoring (even on an empty net later), is still a factor. He won the puck from Niclas Wallin at the end boards, flung it to Niklas Hjalmarsson, whose bullet was deflected by Troy Brouwer past goalie Evgeni Nabokov.
If the Sharks were in a hurry but going nowhere Tuesday night, the Blackhawks are headed home to a rousing welcome Friday night at the United Center, where their record this post season is a modest 3-3. Now then, some rather notable teams have, or had, a losing record at home in these playoffs. The Washington Capitals, who led the NHL in points over the regular season, lost three of four and are long gone. The defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins went 3-4 and have been excused. The Vancouver Canucks, winners of 30 games at GM Place during the regular season, were 2-4. Even the mighty Detroit Red Wings could not manage to break even (2-3) at Joe Louis Arena, and were KO’d.
Really smart people are scraping for an explanation, one of them being Stan Bowman, the Blackhawks’ general manager. He points out that hockey is the ultimate team sport in that even the stars don’t play half a game, whereas in the NBA your best players might miss 8 of 48 minutes. I don’t know that the Blackhawks are the closest team in the league, but these guys are always together. One would think that, after a week in San Jose with only two games to break up the monotony, this male bonding thing would be getting a little old. But as Quenneville noted, a bunch of Blackhawks are single and living relatively close to each other in Chicago, where they eat together even when they don’t have to.
After Sunday’s victory here, several of the Blackhawks adjourned to the hotel lobby where they sat, rather inconspicuously, sipping their soda pops and—what else?—watching TV together. Another hockey game, no less.
All the comforts of the road.