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Thursday, June 20, 2013
Firewagon Hawks return with a vengence

By Pierre LeBrun



BOSTON -- Somewhere in Manhattan Beach, Calif., on Wednesday night, the Los Angeles Kings had to be thinking that the team they lost to in the Western Conference finals finally resurfaced in the Stanley Cup finals.

The speedy, attacking version of the Chicago Blackhawks was back in uniform on this night, surviving a wild 6-5 overtime affair that was only in doubt because netminder Corey Crawford had a rare bad night in these playoffs.

Just like 2-0 was a flattering score to a Hawks team dominated by Boston in Game 3, nowhere but the scoreboard were the Bruins close on Wednesday night.

Chicago was first to most pucks, ahead by a step on most shifts and buzzing around Tuukka Rask like they hadn’t been since the opening period of Game 2.

The Blackhawks aren’t going to win the Stanley Cup by trying to play Bruins hockey. No, the Hawks can only pull it off playing their speed-stretch pass-attack game.

"I think that’s how our team is built," Hawks star Patrick Sharp said, agreeing with the thought. "We’ve got four lines that can score, we’ve got four lines that can skate, we’ve got a mobile defense; we’re not saying we want to open the flood gates and just trade chances, but I think when we play that attack game and that confident style, we can be a successful team."

A return to their style of game needed a return to the line that spearheads that game: Captain Jonathan Toews reunited with Patrick Kane and Bryan Bickell.

You understand what head coach Joel Quenneville was thinking before the series, wanting to split up Kane and Toews so that at least one of them would get away from a Zdeno Chara matchup.

But after generating so little offensively in Game 3, Quenneville felt compelled to go back to his fail-safe: No. 19 and No. 88 together. Why not, after the way in which the pair combined to bury the Kings in Games 4 and 5 of the Western Conference finals?

And after Wednesday night’s performance by that line, I'm not sure we’ll see them split up again in this series.

"That line was dangerous, be it off the rush, in the zone," Quenneville said. "The excitement of that line, Kaner in possession, Bick around with the big body, they scored some different kind of goals. But Johnny had a nice night."

Toews scored his second goal of the playoffs, his celebration after the goal suggesting he enjoyed getting the monkey off his back. Kane, who was nearly invisible in Game 3, found ways to get through the Bruins' physical coverage and was much more noticeable, collecting a rebound goal by going hard to the net.

And Chara? He was minus-3 and on the ice for five goals in total.

"Credit to Chara, he's one of their key players, he's a great player," said Toews. "We know his No. 1 advantage is his size, reach and strength. I think at the same time you can't give him too much respect and want to compensate the way you play as a line, considering the fact he's out there against you. I mean, there's certain ways you can expose him. I think the dump-ins that we made tonight were going to his side. We made sure we were outnumbering him everywhere we went, taking away his stick-first thing.

"We just try not to be intimidated by his size. You have to get to the net, find a way inside, not be, like I said, intimidated by that.

"We can outwork him and we did that tonight, and we want to continue that."

Whoa, get all that? Not sure Toews could have been any more clear. They’re taking on Chara head-on and they’re OK with it.

Big Z was in Toews’ face all night long after every whistle, trying to intimidate the Hawks' captain. Unlike many players in this league who have shrunk a bit after that kind of menace, Toews stood even taller as the night went on.

It’s game on between two great captains.

Of course, the return of Marian Hossa cannot be lost in all this. He’s such an effective player, especially on the road with his size and strength and his ability to lower his shoulder and take pucks straight to the net.

On the second line with Sharp and Michal Handzus, Hossa’s unit combined for two goals and an assist and was equally forceful on this night. Hossa’s return provides so much balance to the way the Hawks set up their lines.

"Huge game from everybody," Hossa said. "That’s how we’re going to beat this team. Everybody contributed and it was a huge win. ... It’s huge. We knew if we were going to lose this one, Boston, they have such a strong team, it would be really tough to come back."

Not only was Chicago’s response to Game 3 a statement about the moxie of this team, but the manner in which they kept their composure -- in a game in which they gave up a pair of two-goal leads plus a third-period lead, and a clunker from their goalie -- well, that’s character.

There’s plenty of that to go around in both of these dressing rooms. But it was Chicago that was under the gun to prove it on this night with their season essentially on the line.

"That was an amazing effort by our guys," Crawford said.

"We’ve never doubted the heart and character in our room," said Sharp, who scored a goal in yet another clutch playoff night. "We believe in each other, and even though we were giving up goals we probably shouldn’t give up, with the game on the line we kept finding a way to get the next one."

And fitting, really, that good ol’ Brent Seabrook, in many ways the emotional barometer of this team, got the OT winner with a blast at 9:51 of the extra period.

It was Seabrook, according to Toews, who kept asking the Hawks' captain over the last few days what he was thinking. He demanded that Toews respond, "Score a goal."

Toews did, but so did Seabrook.

"Everybody worked so hard tonight, everybody's worked so hard through the playoffs, we're all contributing," said Seabrook. "It doesn't matter if I score or anybody else scores, it's nice to get the win and move on to the next day.

"I think it's definitely exciting to score in an overtime game, an overtime goal. But at the end of the day it's just a win and we still need two more, so ..."

So we’re off to Chicago, with the Hawks back in this thing in a big way.

Seven games? I’ve said it all along, you better believe it.