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Hawks must bear down or watch glory slip away

by John Dellapina
CHICAGO -- The notion that this Stanley Cup Final was a mismatch has been obliterated now, exploded by a combustible combination of Philadelphia resilience and some mix of Chicago overconfidence and overcompensation for a Game 1 that apparently wasn't won in the proper way.

So surprise at their opponents' pluck or the naïveté of the youth of their own stars no longer should be valid explanations for what happens with the Blackhawks from here on.

They have arrived at their moment of truth. The moment at which nearly 10 months together spent building something special must come to fruition. The moment at which winning more games than any team in the franchise's 84-year NHL history must mean that they simply will not leave the stage without the big prize.

The moment at which the precious chance to slay a 49-year-old dragon and give this hockey city the trophy it has long craved must be seized by the throat, not timidly pawed at.

Tactical adjustments? Line combination changes? Whining about the little things that Chris Pronger is getting away with? A 113-point, third-overall team that eliminated three 100-point opponents to advance this far shouldn't be worrying about such things this far along against an 88-point, 18th-overall opponent that needed a shootout on the final day of the regular season to slip into the tournament.

Which is why, upon meeting with his team rather than putting them through a practice Saturday afternoon at the United Center, Chicago coach Joel Quenneville had a pointed message.

"Just making sure we want it," winger Patrick Kane said. "You don't want to let this opportunity slip away. Especially coming all this way.

"It's been a long year for us. But we've got, at most, three games left to really put something together here that we can cherish for the rest of our lives. So you don't want to let the opportunity slip away."

The Blackhawks spent three days and two nights in Philadelphia doing just that. Fact is, they probably began greasing their own skids before they even left home with a 2-0 series lead.

Coming off that 6-5 win in Game 1, they appeared to get caught up in how many goals the Flyers scored rather than the fact that they scored even more. Game 2 was another victory. But it came from a cautious, counterpunching, lead-nursing, out-of-character performance by the Blackhawks that served to embolden the Flyers rather than convince them that -- as many outside their locker room believed -- they were outclassed.

By Game 3, the Flyers were carrying the play more often than not. And in Game 4, while the Flyers were doing supremely confident things like shaking off sieges in their zone and scoring within seconds after they were scored upon to instantly douse momentum, the Hawks showed signs of frustration, doubt or unwillingness or inability to do what it takes to win in June.

The positive energy built from the best shift of the series by the otherwise dormant Dustin Byfuglien, Jonathan Toews, Kane line was utterly dissipated by an inscrutable penalty by Tomas Kopecky 4:30 into the game -- committed 180 feet from his own net -- that was appropriately punished five seconds later by Mike Richards' goal to start the scoring.

The confidence-building work done in the 10 minutes that followed -- during which the Flyers rarely entered the Chicago zone -- was undone when Hawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson tried to clear a rebound up the middle, instead handing a goal to Matt Carle that made it 2-0.

The potential uplift of Patrick Sharp's redirection goal with 1:28 left in the first period was squashed into a cruel tease when the Blackhawks got mesmerized by the puck on the next shift and left Claude Giroux all alone off the left post to make it 3-1 going into the first intermission.

Damning mental lapses all. And all the more alarming in this context: Giroux's goal was the second in the last two games that the Flyers scored on shifts immediately following a Hawks' goal; and it was the third in the series the Flyers scored within the final 1:11 of a period (not counting Jeff Carter's empty-netter in Game 4).

Hence, Quenneville's not-so-gentle reminder Saturday that now is no time for minds to wander -- following his in-game dose of shock therapy/admission of a significant problem by breaking up the Byfuglien-Toews-Kane line.

"I think that message was to get guys going and get that intensity back," said Chicago winger Andrew Ladd, one of the few Cup-winners in this series. "I don't think it matters who you are playing with. You have to -- especially this time of year, you're in the Stanley Cup Final -- you have to have that."

"It's been a long year for us. But we've got, at most, three games left to really put something together here that we can cherish for the rest of our lives. So you don't want to let the opportunity slip away." -- Patrick Kane
Somebody wanted to know if returning home tied at 2-games-apiece was a test of the Blackhawks mental toughness.

"I don't know if it's a mental challenge," Ladd said. "I think it's a wake-up call for everyone here that we have to be a lot better. We're confident that we can get back to the way we were playing, probably a little more in the last series where we were skating and battling a lot harder."

That last part was about as tactically technical as Quenneville cared to get while meeting the media Saturday. And that was entirely appropriate.

All of the other stuff is beside the point if the Hawks don't resume playing the way they did through the first three rounds -- especially the triumphs over Vancouver and San Jose. Which is to say, as if they would rather die than lose a race to a loose puck or a battle in front of either net, all the while projecting an air of supreme confidence that they would not and could not be outplayed.

"I think, technically, adjustments we'll look at," Quenneville said. "Going into every game there's some variances in all areas of what we're trying to do in all zones. But I think the excitement of the game, the motivation, that's in place. The excitement of being in the United Center tomorrow is in place.

"I don't think we have to tweak that too much. But I just think we know it's a battle going forward. And we have to raise that level."

Either that or the Blackhawks will allow a special season to end in the worst way possible -- just short of the ultimate goal, at least in part because they never played their best.

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