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Playoff-tested Blackhawks aim for third title since 2010

by Dan Rosen

CHICAGO -- If it were left up to history to decide which team will win the Stanley Cup this season, the Chicago Blackhawks would just have to show up Monday night at United Center and would be crowned champions.

It obviously doesn't work that way. The Tampa Bay Lightning are not history. Far from it.

The Lightning are down 3-2 in the best-of-7 series heading into Game 6 (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports), but they rallied from the same deficit against the Detroit Red Wings in the first round to advance. They also beat back the history stacked against them in the Conference Final to be the first team ever to defeat the New York Rangers in a Game 7 at Madison Square Garden.

To force a Game 7 against the Blackhawks, the Lightning are going to have to defy history again.

Under coach Joel Quenneville, the Blackhawks have never lost a Game 6 with a chance to win the Stanley Cup. Their previous two championships in 2010 and 2013 were decided in Game 6s on the road. This time, they have a chance to do it at home.

In addition, the Blackhawks are 5-0 in Games 5 and 6 of the Cup Final under Quenneville, including their 2-1 win against the Lightning at Amalie Arena on Saturday.

Chicago is also 17-1 in Games 5-7 after splitting the first four games of a series under Quenneville. Its lone loss was Game 5 against the Anaheim Ducks in the Conference Final this year; the Blackhawks responded by winning Games 6 and 7.

The Blackhawks are 42-14 in Games 4-7 under Quenneville after going 30-30 in Games 1-3.

So why are the Blackhawks so good in these situations? Captain Jonathan Toews has a theory.

"We always like to think we get better and better as the series goes along," Toews said. "We get into these later games where we have the chance to play these games that are more meaningful, I think that's when we play our best."

Defenseman Johnny Oduya said he thinks the Blackhawks play their best in these situations because they have players that love the spotlight, and know how to shine in it.

The spotlight isn't necessarily shining as bright early in a series as it is late.

"They like being in the spot when the pressure is on," Oduya said. "They're not afraid to make those mistakes. They take a lot of responsibility. I think that shows maybe later on in the series.

The first couple games in any series, I think there's a lot of excitement. … there's more go, go, go mentality, whereas later on you tend to be a little bit more self-cautious. The experience, what type of player and personality you have, plays into that. You've got to be able to go through these patches where things are not going your way, it's up and down, and still be able as a group to come out and get some results. That's obviously a strength of our team."

Toews said he doesn't think it's a strength because the Blackhawks have some sort of mythic killer instinct or have the ability to flip the proverbial switch. Those aren't tangible things, or reasons for why a team improves the deeper a series goes. But coaching is.

Quenneville is one of the best coaches in the history of the NHL. He is potentially coaching his way into the Hall of Fame with what he has been able to do with the Blackhawks since taking over in 2008-09.

The Blackhawks are 316-155-65 under Quenneville in the regular season and 72-44 in the playoffs. He is third all-time in regular season wins (754) and in playoff wins (114).

"Joel has done an incredible job of, I think, just gauging where we're at throughout some of these series," Toews said. "I think he identifies things that will make us stronger going into the later games in the series."


Scotty Bowman 1,244
Al Arbour 782
Joel Quenneville 754

Experience is another tangible reason why the Blackhawks know how to win when they get deeper into a series. They have more playoff experience than any other team in the NHL in the past six seasons.

Chicago has played 116 playoff games since 2009. The next closest team is the Boston Bruins with 91 postseason games, including 22 in 2013, when they lost to the Blackhawks in six games in the Stanley Cup Final.

"The more you do it, the more you get addicted to it," said center Brad Richards, who is going through his first playoff run as a member of the Blackhawks. "When I got to win it in Tampa the first time [2004], we were a bunch of young kids not really having a clue what we were doing. This group feels a lot more like they've been through it. There doesn't have to be a lot of speeches, reminders.

"Once you have success doing it, it's never going to get easier, but it gets easier to prepare and focus on the right things as you go into these games."

That focus is what Quenneville sees in his team now, and always in these situations. The reason, he said, is the core of the team that won the Cup in 2010 is still intact.

Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Bryan Bickell, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Duncan Keith are one win away from their third championship with Chicago. Corey Crawford, Kris Versteeg, Andrew Shaw, Marcus Kruger, Brandon Saad and Johnny Oduya are going for their second with the Blackhawks.

"Our top guys rise to the challenge," Quenneville said. "They know it's an important game. The bigger the setting, they rise to that challenge. It's a compliment to them.

"I think our team game relies on consistency, predictability, not wavering too much. That helps, as well. The players are the ones going out there to do it. We feel if you want to progress in games and series, you've got to get better as you go along."

No team does it better than the Blackhawks, and the Lightning have to try to change that.


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