- Jesse Rogers, ESPN Staff Writer
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Sixteen teams make the playoffs in the NHL, and as of Saturday night, 15 have clinched the right to play on next week. The final playoff berth will be determined Sunday and it’s going to the Chicago Blackhawks or the Dallas Stars. That much we know.
“We’re the only team playing all 82 with a huge purpose behind ‘em,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said after a short practice Saturday. “That has to be our focus. We haven’t had an easy game all year so we don’t expect one more.”
The Detroit Red Wings didn’t exactly make it difficult in Game 81, and judging from their tone, they’re going to change that come Sunday afternoon at the United Center.
“Listen, we haven’t played well for a while here consistently,” Wings forward Dan Cleary said after Friday’s 4-2 defeat. “We’ve got to find a way. We’ve got a big game Sunday and we’ve just got to come out and try to have some good steps and have some good periods and get ready for [the] playoffs.”
But the Hawks are at home, where they should feel the playoff atmosphere that will undoubtedly be in the building. They haven’t always used the home crowd to their advantage, though Wednesday’s win over the St. Louis Blues was fan-driven after a favorable call by the officials.
“It’s our job to use them because they’re just going to be looking for an excuse to get excited and it’s our job to get them going right away,” Jake Dowell said.
Slow starts at home have been the norm as often as fast ones this season. Most players agreed this isn’t a game you want to have to play in comeback mode. That leads to tight play, which leads to mistakes.
“We’ve played a lot of big games this year, especially the last little stretch,” goaltender Corey Crawford said. “It’s nothing new for us. It’s a lot better deciding our own fate instead of worrying about someone else.”
The only difference: This one has a win-or-go-home mentality, much like a postseason Game 7. The Hawks do have a chance to back in if they lose, but they’re not hearing any of that.
“If we play like we did Friday, we have a good chance of taking care of business,” Brian Campbell said. “I know Dallas is going win their game. We have to take care of our business.”
As for nerves, there’s no avoiding them no matter how many big games they’ve been through.
“I’m sure I’ll be a little nervous,” Crawford said. “Friday was a little nervous going into the first period. That’s only normal I think.”
Nervous is fine, tight is not. The best thing going for the Hawks in a situation like this is leadership and poise. Experience doesn’t hurt, either. It should allow for at least a close game, which is exactly what the Hawks need.
Quenneville knows a point gets his team into the postseason, and though he said, “You play to win the game,” is there any doubt he’ll coach to the situation if it’s tied in the third period?
One game to determine if they get to defend their title. It’s not the script anyone would have written, but it provides for a dramatic ending.
Just how the Hawks like it.
Dave Bolland had a light practice with the team, but he hasn’t been cleared for contact.
Troy Brouwer is still day-to-day with a shoulder injury suffered in Montreal on Tuesday, although Quenneville said, “he’s not close to [skating] right now.”
Expect the same lineup that beat the Wings handily on Friday to be on the ice for Sunday’s regular-season finale.
Game time is 11:30 a.m. to accommodate NBC-TV.