NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Brent Sopel’s face told the whole story.
Sitting at his stall after the Chicago Blackhawks eliminated the Nashville Predators with a 5-3 win in Game 6, Sopel sported 10 stitches suffered when Patrick Hornqvist nailed him with a high stick in the second period. It’s just one of many sacrifices Sopel made with his body to help the Hawks advance. He went through a war.
“They play hard from the drop of the puck,” Sopel said of the Predators. “Obviously, it’s the playoffs. Everything ramps up.”
And ramp up it did. The Hawks reeled off three straight wins after a horrible effort in Game 3. Maybe that game served as a wake-up call.
“It all comes down to a little urgency and desperation to our game,” Duncan Keith said. “As the series went along, we had more and more respect for them, and it showed in our play.”
No part of the Blackhawks game was better than their penalty killing. They gave up one power-play goal in the entire series, and that came in Game 6. Nashville was 1-for-26 in the series. In the final period of the final game, their prowess was called upon again.
“I think that was a big part of it,” Keith said. “We took a lot of penalties there in the third and we were able to hold it.”
Three in a row to be exact, and the Predators were denied each time. As the saying goes, your best penalty killer has to be your goaltender, and Antti Niemi was exactly that.
“He was unbelievable out there,” John Madden said. “He made some huge saves the whole series.”
None were better than while the Hawks were a man -- or more -- short. There was the 5-on-3 in Game 4 and the dramatic four-minute overtime kill in Game 5. Then three-in-a-row near the end of Game 6. Niemi passed every test.
“He really helped solidify our [penalty killing],” coach Joel Quenneville said. “He was big in the series. I thought he was consistent and big in the net.”
Though the Hawks did get better as the series went along, they know they have more levels to reach.
“We’re hoping we’re nowhere near our best,” Jonathan Toews said. “We’re going to keep going with that same attitude that we’re going to get better every day.”
A veteran of many playoff battles, Madden still found plenty of room for improvement going into round two.
“That first period definitely wasn’t our style, because if it is we definitely want to think about getting rid of it,” Madden said. “Seven goals in the first period is not going to cut it in playoff hockey.
“It seemed like Nashville wouldn’t go away. You have to tip your cap to them. They just kept coming and coming and coming. They played well.”
They did, but the Hawks played just a little bit better.
“We really had to dig down deep for this one,” Brent Seabrook declared.
“There are never easy rounds in this business,” he said. “The first round might be the toughest around the league.”
In the end, it was the unlikely heroes that took center stage. While the offensive stars chipped in as the series went along, it was those penalty killers who came to play.
“It’s ‘whatever it takes to win’ and Sopel is the ringleader in that department,” Quenneville said.
With five more blocks in Game 6, it brought Sopel’s series-leading total to 21. And one cut to the face.
“Took a stick,” he said. “It’s OK. I think my modeling career is on hold anyways right now.”
But his playing days continue, at least for another round.
“I wasn’t trying to put it in the net,” Seabrook said. “I was trying to rim it around the net and Kane was standing in the way. I wanted him to get out of the way so I could get it good and luckily it went off his foot and went in.”
The crowd jeered Marian Hossa nearly every time he touched the puck. Hossa said he heard the “noise” but it didn’t bother him. He said he apologized twice to Dan Hamhuis for his check into the boards in Game 5, including in the handshake line after the game.