Hawks take the panic out of pressure

CHICAGO -- When Minnesota Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom left the ice with an injury before the game started, Chicago Blackhawks fans probably expected an easy win over backup goalie Josh Harding.

Maybe the Blackhawks did, too.

The last time the Hawks faced Harding on Jan. 30, he was pulled from the game after two goals in the first seven minutes. Harding, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the fall, hasn't started a game since then and played only twice.

But this is the playoffs, after all, and in the NHL it's often hard to tell the seeds apart, let alone the dominant goaltenders (read: Corey Crawford) from the benchwarmers.

That's why everyone loves the Stanley Cup playoffs. The game begins with a goalie change and ends with Bryan Bickell celebrating an overtime goal.

It was almost a hero's story for the Wild goaltender. But in the first game in what they hope is a long summer of hockey, the Blackhawks won 2-1 in overtime.

They're already ahead of the 2010 pace, the season when they won it all. Chicago lost its playoff opener that season to the Nashville Predators.

The top-seeded Blackhawks got a victory to start this Stanley Cup-or-bust playoff run, thanks to a crafty move from their bruising third-line forward.

"He made one of the nicer moves he's ever made in his career, I think," Viktor Stalberg, who assisted Bickell on the goal, said.

"He's got a big shot off the rush and had a nice little finish with the deke there," coach Joel Quenneville said.

On the winning play, Andrew Shaw freed the puck with a big hit behind the Blackhawks goal, and the puck got to defenseman Johnny Oduya, who cleared it down the ice to Stalberg, who got a head start. Stalberg stopped and fired a pass to a streaking Bickell down the middle for the winner.

You know what they say: It takes an entire third line to win a playoff game.

But after two seasons trying to reconcile the reality of the salary cap with the lost talent from the Stanley Cup team, the depth of the Blackhawks is again their strength. The third line is proof.

"Definitely," said Marian Hossa, who scored the Blackhawks' first goal on the power play in the second period. "Those two guys, with Stally using his speed, and a great pass to Bicksy, he made the huge goal and the win."

Yes, you know it's playoff hockey when I'm quoting guys about "Stally" and "Bicksy."

With 77 points, the Blackhawks won the McDonough Mug (you might call it the Presidents' Trophy), finishing off a storybook season that began with a record points streak and national acclaim.

It's been nothing but good news for the Blackhawks, a welcome return to the top for a city mad about its hockey team. For a team with no clear holes, overconfidence is the Blackhawks' greatest enemy, at least off the ice.

"Maybe we're listening to the press and the media that we're having one of those years that everyone is patting us on the back," Quenneville mused. "We've got to prove it. That's where we're at, and being satisfied with what you've achieved doesn't do us anything. We want to make sure we're looking for bigger goals."

The goals Quenneville speaks of are basically any coach's top-line clichés: Playing better every game and picking up intensity.

But since it's hockey, it's also about taking advantage of opportunities, such as corralling rebounds by the goal and finishing checks -- like Shaw's hit that triggered the winning goal. The Hawks didn't do that all game against a responsible Wild team … until it counted.

"We've just got to find ways to sustain a little more pressure and maybe get some rebounds, some second chances and second efforts on their goaltender," Hawks captain Jonathan Toews said. "We didn't do that too often."

Crawford had a rocky start, giving up a goal in the first period. But he settled down and shut out the Wild for the rest of the game, making 26 saves, seven in each of the last two periods and overtime. With Ray Emery still out due to a lower body injury, the pressure on Crawford increases.

But pressure isn't a bad thing.

"There's always pressure after having a season like this," Stalberg said. "But I think playing under pressure all year long, whether it was the streak or the records or no matter what, we're excited where we're at. We're excited to have home ice. It's an advantage for sure."

You could say the Blackhawks' regular-season success was meaningless, given the randomness of the playoffs. But that's the wrong way to look at it. Sports are all about muscle memory.

"We won so many games in the regular season either going into overtime or it was a tight game; that was great experience for tonight," Hossa said. "We know coming into the dressing room after three periods it was a tie game, and no one panicked here. Everybody knew what to do."

And what the Blackhawks know how to do is win. Now they just have to do it 15 more times.