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Hawks need more from their stars

by Brian Hedger /

CHICAGO -- How dedicated are the Phoenix Coyotes to stopping the Chicago Blackhawks' top stars in a tightly contested Western Conference Quarterfinal series?

Consider what Coyotes captain Shane Doan about the series matchup after Thursday night's 3-2 Phoenix win in Game 4 at United Center, which put the star-laden Hawks down three games to one and on the verge of an early exit.

"Their top six, you can put them up against probably anybody in the entire League," Doan said. "They're unbelievable. But we really like our group. We talk about our group constantly as a group [and nothing more]."


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As a group, the Coyotes are stifling the Hawks' offense -- which has scored just nine goals in four games, all of which were decided in overtime.

"Our top guys have to be better for us to be successful going forward," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said Friday, near the end of his media address prior to leaving for Arizona to play Game 5 on Saturday night at Arena. "We need them to be our best players for sure."

Quenneville sees how the Coyotes' patient strategy is working. Their defense-oriented system is forcing role players to carry the load while stars like Patrick Sharp (one goal and no assists), Patrick Kane (no goals and four assists) and Jonathan Toews (one goal and two assists) struggle to take a breath without a Coyote in their face.

Quenneville realizes it's tough on those guys, as Sharp's fat lip attests, but also knows his team is in a dire situation without his biggest weapons. Phoenix goalie Mike Smith has also been brilliant, helping to back the Blackhawks against the proverbial wall.

"We've said this many times before that the only thing that really matters is what is said and done inside that locker room, not what anybody says about us," Toews said. "No one thinks we're going to win this series. Who cares, you know? It's all up to us."

To be fair, Toews sat out the previous 22 games of the regular season with a concussion before returning for Game 1. Toews hasn't been bad and neither have his fellow stars -- they just haven't been good enough to win at least more than one of the four straight OT games.

The Blackhawks are also playing without Marian Hossa (no points in two-plus games) and impact rookie Andrew Shaw as the result of controversial plays. Shaw was suspended until Game 6 for running over Smith in Game 2, while Hossa is out after a brutal hit in Game 3 by suspended Coyotes forward Raffi Torres injured him.

Hossa walked out of the emergency room later that night, but didn't play in Game 4 and didn't make the trip for Game 5 because of an upper-body injury. That puts even more pressure on the remaining skill guys -- including speedy forward Viktor Stalberg plus star defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook.

The good news from the Chicago perspective is the Hawks have a track record of responding.

Jonathan Toews
Jonathan Toews
Center - CHI
GOALS: 1 | ASST: 2 | PTS: 3
SOG: 12 | +/-: 4
"We've been through a lot this year," Toews said. "You look to our [nine-game] losing streak midway through the year, all the injuries that we've had to deal with ... a lot of those things haven't affected us. We've kept pushing through and never made excuses. It's been the same way in three of these games. We've gone down a goal in the third period and found a way to score when we'd like to push it to overtime."

Now they need to find a way to win, whether in regulation or OT. Quenneville said it starts with nixing the pretty plays and scoring dirty goals.

"That's kind of our message across the board as a team," Quenneville said. "We need more pucks. You try and take guys on 1-on-1 [and] they defend well, they've got backside pressure, they've got sticks, they protect the slot, it's tight areas ... and the high-quality shot is not going to be there. We've got to get some ugly goals or second opportunities by being relentless in the ugly areas."

By the sound of it, the message got through.

"The answer is the same as it's been all series," Sharp said when asked how to beat Smith. "He's a great goaltender, and he's going to make the saves that he sees. You look at every goal we've scored -- it's been bodies at the net, deflections, screens ... ugly goals. That's the way we've got to be successful against them."

It's also the way to be successful against the Nashville Predators, who put Chicago's high-octane rival, the Detroit Red Wings, in a similar 3-1 hole during that first-round series.

"I think there [are] some similarities," Keith said when asked to compare Phoenix and Nashville. "They play a well-structured team game, and I think over the past, when we've played that way we've been a really tough team to beat. There's another level in our game that we need to get there. Obviously, it has to be next game."

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