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Frustrated Blackhawks look for answers

by Shawn Roarke

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews is famous for his composure. Nothing, it seems, ever rattles Toews, who has already claimed two Stanley Cup titles in a career that has not yet reached its apex.

That's why it was so jarring to watch him skate back to his bench after another trying shift Friday in Game 4 of the Western Conference Second Round series against the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center.

His team was trailing in what would become a 4-2 loss that evened the best-of-7 series at two victories each and the Blackhawks could not sustain any offense.

Toews' anger was apparent in the purse of his lips and the knit of his brow. His ears were ringing from the hoots and hollers of the 19,000-plus shaking the rafters of the house of horrors the Blackhawks were trying to escape. And then, without warning, his stick slammed on the ice just before he reached the bench, a telltale sign to anyone interested in such things that Toews was rattled.

"We're frustrating to play against," said Minnesota's Zach Parise, talking about how his team prides itself on making the opposition run a gauntlet of five players in order to even entertain the thought of a quality scoring opportunity.

When the Wild are on their game, as they were for the two games at Xcel, they can be a demoralizing opponent to play.

But the constant battle throughout this series for open ice is starting to wear on more than just Toews. All of the Blackhawks' big guns are frustrated by the grating attention to defensive detail demonstrated by their opponent.

"They do a good job playing their system and clogging up certain areas of the ice," Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith said. "But there are ways we can work on and talk about to create more offense. We're going to have to have more shots. Don't know what we finished with, but I looked up in the second period and we had nine shots. We have to create more."

Chicago finished with 20 shots on Friday, three nights after managing 19 in a 4-0 loss in Game 3 that allowed Minnesota back into the series. The Blackhawks had 23 shots in each of the first two games in Chicago.

How stifling have the Wild been? Consider this: Chicago has played 85 Stanley Cup Playoff games since 2003 and have been held to fewer than 24 shots on eight occasions. Four have come in the first four games of this series.

No wonder Toews appeared so unhappy.

"I think it's reflecting of our intensity," he said of the struggles to get shots on Ilya Bryzgalov, who has been thrust into the starter's role through a string of injuries to other goalies on the Wild. "They worked for their chances. They worked for everything they got. We have to do the same. I don't really know how to explain it, we have to be better.

"It's frustrating to not get a win the last two games on the road. Could have put ourselves in a great spot had we played the way we need to play to try and get a win these last two games. But we didn't. This series is long from over. That's the good news. We have a chance to redeem ourselves and be better than we have been."

So how do they do that?

"They play a well-structured game, but I think it comes down to using our speed and supporting one another better," Keith said. "Obviously, they're doing things too, but we can be better as far as using speed to support one another out there and make quicker plays and simpler plays."

That looked nearly impossible on Friday. For far too long, the single-digit number under the shots column on the Chicago side of the Xcel Energy Center scoreboard mocked the visiting team, a visible testament to the internal despair bubbling below the surface of the players.

The Blackhawks insist they will find a way out of this; that they will recover from blowing a two-game lead in this series. They insist they will win this best-of-3 race, which begins Sunday night with Game 5 on their home ice at United Center (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN, RDS). They insist they will find their offense.

Why? They have done it before, that's why. The defending Stanley Cup champions have faced hardship before, have looked it in the eye and refused to blink in situations as dire as this one, if not more. That is why they got to party with the Stanley Cup last summer -- because they had the mental toughness to outlast all comers.

"It's playoff hockey; it's not supposed to be easy," Toews said, already purging himself of the frustration he showed in Game 4. "There's going to be some moments where you're stomach drops and you're not feeling like everything is going your way. That's the way it goes.

"You have to find a way to battle through that and create something out of nothing, especially in this building when it's loud. They're playing with energy. Everywhere you look they seem to be there. They're checking you. You have to find a way through that. When you work hard enough, people are going to get lucky."

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