A day before the Chicago Blackhawks clinched their first trip back to the Stanley Cup Final since 1992, young defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson
seemed a little on edge.
His answers to questions were shorter than normal, and at one point he even mentioned how mad he's going to be if Chicago doesn't "win it all," -- something the talented young 'Hawks will now be favored to do regardless of who they play in the Final.
Following Sunday's 4-2 Western Conference Finals-clinching win against San Jose, Hjalmarsson was more relaxed. Yet, he was still quietly confident in what this team can accomplish.
"Win it all," has become more of an expectation than a goal for the 'Hawks, who lacked that confidence during their quarterfinals series against Nashville. The 'Hawks survived against the upset-minded Predators after nearly losing Game 5 at home and going down 3-2 heading back to Nashville.
Instead, late-game heroics by Patrick Kane
and Marian Hossa
gave Chicago an improbable win and paved the path to a series win.
"We have way more confidence right now," Hjalmarsson said. "That first round, we were struggling to be honest with you. We had some luck actually, especially being down (in Game 5) and tying the game with just a few seconds left."
He paused for a second, searching for the right words.
"It's all about finding a way to win and we did that," said Hjalmarsson, who's become a solid defenseman in less than two full regular seasons. "We've been growing with each round."
In retrospect, Hjalmarsson's somewhat salty attitude before Sunday's win was a perfect example of how far the 'Hawks have come -- not only since last season's run to the conference finals, but since the series against Nashville and Vancouver.
Chicago was picked to win the Cup by a few experts and at least one video game simulation before the playoffs, but the 'Hawks themselves seemed a little tentative to embrace the expectations.
Not after winning three road games at Vancouver's GM Place to dust the Canucks away like so much lint. Not after finding ways to beat the Sharks in four straight, despite trailing early in three of the games. Not after watching captain Jonathan Toews
, goalie Antti Niemi and power forward Dustin Byfuglien battle it out to lead the race in many minds for the Conn Smythe Trophy.
"(My) confidence is really way up," said Byfuglien, who scored his eighth goal of the post-season and third game-winner against the Sharks Sunday. "I wouldn't mind (the Cup Final) starting (now). Everything's going good right now."
Not just for him, but for the entire team.
Aside from Duncan Keith
's damaged grill and Andrew Ladd's mystery injury that happened Sunday, the 'Hawks are healthy in mind, body and spirit. Hjalmarsson said it's palpable inside the dressing room.
"I got a feeling in the locker room ever since this series started that we were just really comfortable," he said. "It just felt really calm. Everyone knows their role and what to do, and we execute them really good. That's what it's all about."
That's also not something he anticipates changing during the down time before the Final.
"I've never been there before, but if you don't play your heart out in the Stanley Cup Final, then I don't know when you're going to do that," Hjalmarsson said. "I'm going to do everything I can to contribute to the team and everyone else is going to do that, too."
Across the room stood veteran center John Madden, the only player inside the 'Hawks room with multiple Stanley Cup titles (two with New Jersey). Madden was asked if he liked the way Chicago kept its celebration subdued, limiting it to some Western Conference Champions gear without any bubbly or joyous tears.
"I really like it," he said. "I like everything we did after we won, and the way we're handling ourselves. We're happy with the accomplishment, but we're not done. We've got bigger things to do."
And they're going to be really mad if they don't get them done.
Author: Brian Hedger | NHL.com Correspondent