Shaking the Nashville Predators like a hacking cough, it's tough to say the Blackhawks will be rewarded with a Western Conference semifinal rematch against the even more annoying and more menacing Vancouver Canucks. But the Hawks, 5-3 winners Monday night in their first-round Game 6 clincher, are relieved just the same.
"It wouldn't have been a good feeling to lose this one and have to go back to our building for Game 7," said Hawks captain Jonathan Toews, who had a goal and two assists in the victory. "We had to have that killer instinct and finish it off. Everyone knows that fourth win is the toughest to get."
Given the Game 5 precedent, Game 6 was not the toughest to close out. But it was the wildest start in anyone's memory, a combined seven goals on 13 shots by the Hawks and nine by Nashville that yielded a 4-3 Chicago lead after the first period that actually held up.
Strangest of all was that the deciding goal was credited to Patrick Kane, who was fortunate enough to catch Brent Seabrook's "shot" at center ice with his right skate, after which it sailed into an empty net and past a stunned Preds goalie Pekka Rinne, who had left it open in anticipation of finding the puck sent around the boards.
"I don't think anybody predicted that first period," said Hawks center Patrick Sharp, who had a goal and two assists.
The Predators' first-period goal by Jason Arnott was their first on the power play in 26 attempts in the series. After that, it was one long series of penalty kills -- four in succession in the second period by Nashville, and three by the Hawks in the third, which ultimately defined a grind-it-out series.
"I was more surprised about the amount of goals that were scored in the first period," Toews said. "After that, we got back to how the series has gone in other games. It was a little bit tighter, less chances and big penalty kills by both teams. We had our chances. We wanted to distance ourselves there in the second period, especially with the four-man power play. Unfortunately, we couldn't do that."
Closing out the series in six games, though a longer and tougher haul than Hawks fans may have anticipated for the No. 2 seed, is welcome just the same as it gives Chicago three days of rest before what is sure to be a considerably more intense affair beginning with Friday's Game 1 at the United Center.
"There's a lot of history for them and I'm sure they're going to be looking forward to coming back at us," Toews said. "We don't like each other too much, everyone knows that. These are the types of games you live for. It's going to be a great tempo, great pace right from the get-go. We'll try to learn from our mistakes this series."
The Hawks will have to if they hope to have a chance against a Canucks club that has been fired up for, oh, 12 months now. Kane said on the way off the ice following Canada's Olympic gold-medal victory over the U.S. in Vancouver two months ago that Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo told him he'd see him in the playoffs.
The teams split their four-game series during the regular season, but the Blackhawks' win in six games in last year's conference semifinals, after being down 2-1, fueled the Canucks during the regular season, and they are not likely to be in a good mood Friday.
"I'm sure it won't take long to rekindle the animosity," said Hawks coach Joel Quenneville. "The rivalries are more intense, but in the playoffs, you have to have composure and discipline and be smart. There's a lot more focus, and retaliation won't work. We have to be at our best and work."
The Canucks' attempt at intimidation last season didn't work against their skilled, young opponents. But coming off a mostly sluggish series against Nashville, the Hawks will have to make an abrupt adjustment in intensity, and no longer will they be sneaking up on anyone.
"Every time we play them it seems there's lot going on," said Duncan Keith. "Every part of the game, they play hard. It's going to be a fun series and it's going to be a challenge."
The playoffs may have gotten a kickstart over the weekend, but they begin in earnest now.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.