-- Ever since they were kids wielding sticks on the neighborhood streets, on the frozen-over ponds or even on their own, man-made backyard rinks, guys like Duncan Keith
, Patrick Sharp
, Jonathan Toews
and many others wearing the Indian head on their chest have pretended they were in the Stanley Cup Final.
Win Game 4 Sunday afternoon against San Jose, and in a few days the pretending stops.
"It obviously is a nice spot to be in right now," Keith said Saturday on what could be the final off day of the Western Conference Finals. "We can wrap our head around this. We're in a good spot, but we're not there yet. We're not where we want to be and we haven't done what we want to do yet."
What they want to do right now is, of course, earn the right to play for the Stanley Cup. The Blackhawks wouldn't be wrong to choose that as the big carrot to guide them Sunday at United Center.
However, the feeling coming out of the press conferences with the players and coach Joel Quenneville
on Saturday is that the Hawks really don't want to talk about the Stanley Cup Final right now even if everyone else in this town, media included, does.
Yes, Sharp said, getting there is on their minds. Of course, Keith agreed, the motivation behind everything they do is to play for the Cup.
The Hawks, though, have kept the same, take-'em-one-at-a-time approach throughout these playoffs, and the last thing they want to do now is stray away from what is obviously working.
It might be cliché, but who can argue with their success?
"Our focus is in the right place," Quenneville said. "Our guys should be commended how diligent they've been in their approach. I think our concentration is strictly tomorrow and we're not thinking about anything beyond tomorrow's game."
As much as the Sharks will use the Flyers and their historic comeback against Boston earlier this month as motivation that it can happen, the Blackhawks will flip it around for Game 4 and take their cue from what Boston couldn't do.
The Bruins are the Blackhawks' cautionary tale.
"We look at that series as well, use it as motivation in our way and say, 'We want to close it out, we want to be a great team and we want to do it the right way,' " Keith said. "I don't think we want to give these guys any life right now. They haven't had it yet, so there's no point in giving it to them now."
Even with several motivational tools at its disposal, it won't be as simple now for Chicago to keep the same approach, not with everyone in the media already asking questions about the Stanley Cup and with the Windy City being caught up in Hawks' mania.
Signs, placards, flags and posters are spread throughout the city, especially in the downtown area. Bartenders, cab drivers and bellmen are all, without any solicitation, bringing up the Hawks with customers and hotel guests. A couple of reporters covering the series went to a Chicago White Sox game Thursday night and saw nearly as many Sox jerseys, hats and sweatshirts as they did for the Blackhawks.
"It's easy to get caught up in the hype and listen to people tell you how good you are, how good the team's doing," Sharp said.
Even Toews -- Captain Serious himself -- had to stop himself Saturday from looking ahead, from buying into what isn't yet fait accompli.
He was asked what the Hawks would need to improve on if they make it to the Final, and Toews started answering the question before saying, "You know, we're not talking about the Final series yet. I just caught myself there.
"We want to keep playing hockey as long as we can," he added. "If we get there, then, you know, hopefully we save the best for last."
Erase the "if" on Sunday and soon enough they'll stop pretending, stop imagining what all the fuss over the Stanley Cup Final is about.
"We're one win away from a chance to play for the Cup, and just using that as motivation and understanding our position and the opportunity we have should be enough to play the way we should, play a smart game," Keith said. "That's our goal."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl