DETROIT -- This was the slap in the face, the splash of cold water.
Not necessarily one the Chicago Blackhawks needed, but one they knew was coming. During any long playoff run for a Stanley Cup contender, there are moments when a big shove back from the opposition provides a very real reminder that it won’t come easy.
After the Detroit Red Wings beat the Blackhawks 3-1 Monday night to take a surprising 2-1 series lead over the favored Blackhawks, that was the message inside the Blackhawks dressing room. Adversity was going to come at some point this spring.
Well, it’s here.
“[It] almost takes something like this, maybe someone to slap you in the face, so to speak, to really understand what adversity is and how tough it can be,” Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said after the loss.
Because until now, there hadn’t been much this season. The Blackhawks beat the Minnesota Wild in five games during their warm-up for the second round. They were the first team to clinch a playoff berth, finalizing a postseason invitation April 7. The Red Wings, by comparison, needed every last regular-season game to get in, clinching 20 days later.
Viktor Stalberg was asked about the biggest thing the Blackhawks had to overcome during a regular season in which they cruised to a league-best 77 points, and he pointed out that many of the Blackhawks’ wins were close games.
It doesn’t compare to what Chicago faces now. Saturday and Monday were two consecutive playoff losses against a Detroit team that many thought was playing with house money. A team that upset the Anaheim Ducks in the first round but wasn’t expected to pose this big a challenge, this quickly, to Chicago. Not with its inexperience up front and a defense that didn’t match the mobility and depth of Chicago’s.
Game 3 was the litmus test as to whether the Red Wings truly would make this a series. Winning one game in Chicago against a team that might have momentarily let its guard down after a convincing series-opening win is one thing. To come back and repeat that effort when the Blackhawks were ready for it is another thing entirely. This threat from Detroit to end Chicago’s season much earlier than anyone expected is very real. The Red Wings removed any doubt that they’re capable of doing it Monday.
“We probably had one of our better games of the playoffs tonight, even though we lost,” Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith said. “I think we’re going to take some confidence away from this game. I know it’s a tougher situation down 2-1, but we just got to go in with the right mentality the next game.”
If he’s leaving this game with more confidence, just imagine how confident some of the Red Wings feel right now. How 23-year-old Gustav Nyquist, who opened the scoring with a pretty and remarkably patient shot that beat Corey Crawford, feels after scoring his first goal since Game 2 against the Ducks. Or how Drew Miller, who is playing in just his second postseason game this year, feels after diving in and pushing a puck past Crawford before they could even finish announcing Nyquist’s goal to the Joe Louis Arena crowd.
And if that sequence wasn’t frustrating enough, when the Blackhawks thought they had battled back and tied the score, Stalberg’s potentially deflating goal was called off because of goalie interference. It wasn’t a call Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville agreed with, especially considering how much it altered the game.
“[It’s] one of those games, you have to get the momentum back when you can,” Quenneville said. “[We] did everything we could to get the momentum back and we did and we hit the wall when they disallowed the goal.”
The adversity came in the form of a physical and relentless division rival. It also came in the form of a borderline call.
This is when the experience kicks in for the Blackhawks. There might not have been much adversity this season but this group has faced it in the past. They faced it when they had to play without Toews down the stretch last season while he recovered from a concussion. They faced it when they were down 3-0 against the Vancouver Canucks two years ago in the first round and nearly won four consecutive games to stun the Canucks, falling just short in overtime of Game 7.
They faced it when the Nashville Predators gave them all they could handle during the first round of the playoffs in 2010, the year they won the Stanley Cup.
They were down 2-1 in that series, too.
That was the series where Chicago players started to embrace their individual roles, to realize just how hard they needed to play for sustained playoff success and to make a Stanley Cup run.
That moment has arrived again for these Blackhawks.
“Playoffs are long, not everything is going to go your way,” Keith said. “We’ve been through some adversity in our lives and over the past few years. We’ve got to use it to our advantage and dig down and do whatever you can to get some goals and win the next game.”