ST. PAUL, Minn.—As Dirk Graham was saying, the road to the Stanley Cup is paved with adversity. How one navigates the obstacle course determines who survives and who perishes.
“Something bad will happen,” he promised. “It’s a matter of how you handle it.”
Graham speaks from experience and with regret. When the Blackhawks won the Presidents’ Trophy in 1991, a feat that supposedly would vault them onward and upward, Graham served as captain for a team that staged an epic opening round flameout in six games against the Minnesota North Stars, who finished 38 points south of Chicago’s league-high 106 total.
“Obviously, we didn’t handle it,” recalled Graham. “We never quite got going, and then, before we knew it, we were gone.”
Now these Blackhawks, holders of the 2013 Presidents’ Trophy, have encountered their first playoff setback—a 3-2 overtime loss on Sunday in Game 3 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Minnesota Wild.
The Blackhawks were outhit and outplayed before Jason Zucker’s shot to Corey Crawford’s short side brought Minnesota a victory it clearly earned. When Game 4 unfolds Tuesday night at Xcel Energy Center, all eyes—including Graham’s—will be focused on how the highly-touted Blackhawks respond. It seems quite unlikely that they will utterly unravel, as happened in 1991.
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“We were very undisciplined,” said Graham, who is scouting this Chicago-Minnesota series for the San Jose Sharks. “I blame myself for a lot of that. I was there to provide leadership, and I wound up being undisciplined too. I took a major against their goalie, Jon Casey. The North Stars were not as bad as their record. They wound up in the finals against Pittsburgh. But that’s no excuse. We didn’t play the way we should have or could have. Too many penalties. In many ways, we created our own adversity.”
Opening-round series, when the lower seed feels less pressure, can be a struggle for the favorite. The Wild were booed out of the building here in their regular-season finale and had to win in Denver the night after to qualify for the playoffs. But all was forgotten after Sunday’s effort and result. The Wild can think of it as continuing to play with house money.
“You remember when the Blackhawks won the Cup in 2010, how they had a near-miss against the Predators in the first round after being in trouble in Game 5 at home,” Graham went on, referring to Patrick Kane’s tying score with mere seconds left in regulation after an errant Nashville pass, while Marian Hossa was serving a major. “That Chicago team could have been done in, but toughed it out instead.
“In 1992, after that mess in 1991, with a better team than the year before, we won 11 in a row going into the finals at Pittsburgh. We took a 3-0 lead in the first game, and the Penguins overcame adversity. They beat us four straight. We didn’t know what hit us. That’s the beauty of the playoffs, even though it hurts sometimes.”
Indeed, the Stanley Cup marathon stands as the most gripping postseason in professional sports. If the Los Angeles Kings are to defend their Cup, they will have to overcome an egregious gaffe by their hero from last June, goalie Jonathan Quick. He strayed too far in Game 1 against the St. Louis Blues and emerged as a certified goat in a 2-1 overtime defeat. But at least the Kings and Quick can play through and past that initial shock.
The Predators, who lost Ryan Suter to the Wild, and New Jersey Devils, whose former captain Zach Parise also joined Minnesota as a free agent, missed the playoffs. So did another postseason regular, the Philadelphia Flyers, along with the Florida Panthers and Phoenix Coyotes.
All of the aforementioned franchises qualified in the spring of 2012. Replacing them in this postseason are the Wild, Anaheim Ducks, Montreal Canadiens, New York Islanders and Toronto Maple Leafs, a fairly significant turnover. The Maple Leafs were the only team not to have secured a spot since the canceled season of 2004-05. Monday night would be a landmark occasion in Toronto: first home playoff game in nine years!
As for the Blackhawks, a few players were amused by the Wild’s Charlie Coyle noting that “they were looking over their shoulder” in his summary of Game 3. Compared with what’s being said in the Montreal-Ottawa scrums, that’s like inviting the opposition over for tea. Still, Head Coach Joel Quenneville suggested that if you stand still, your chances of being hit increase exponentially. He is seeking more passion.
In 1991, the Blackhawks were intense, but imploded under pressure. One player grabbed Mike Keenan by the throat and put him up against a wall. I don’t think that’s what Coach Q has in mind, do you?