Sunday, April 24, 2011 Updated: April 25, 9:51 AM ET
Series turns into unexpected delight
By Melissa Isaacson ESPNChicago.com
CHICAGO -- It seemed like only a matter of time before the Vancouver Canucks closed out the series on Sunday night, as they skated around and through the Chicago Blackhawks zone in overtime as though on a perpetual power play. But, of course, control has been a relative thing in this series and a virtual mirage for the Canucks, whose hold on the Blackhawks has been as slippery as the ice beneath them.
And so it was, once again, as a season and Stanley Cup defense hung fitfully in the balance, that the Hawks found a way to hang on, using a penalty shot by a player who came to them in February, a game-winning goal by a rookie who has played so few games as a pro that he still needs directions to his locker and 32 saves by another rookie who was just excited he was able to grow a full beard for the playoffs.
Neither the Hawks' 4-3 overtime victory in Game 6, nor this entire Western Conference quarterfinal series could have been scripted this way. And frankly, no one but perhaps the Canucks' and Blackhawks' charter jet companies would have wanted it to be. But it has somehow been fitting in this rocky season and nobody in the home locker room was quarreling with the results as the Hawks sat poised on the brink of rarefied air.
The 1975 New York Islanders, the 2004 Boston Red Sox and the 2010 Philadelphia Flyers came back to win seven-game playoff series after trailing 0-3. No one talks about the teams that have battled back only to fail in a Game 7. For the Hawks, that simply doesn't appear to be an option at this point.
"We just have to feel like things are going to go our way," said Hawks captain Jonathan Toews. "We have to feel like it's meant to be. We have a great feeling in this locker room right now and that's what you get when you win three games in a row."
Ben Smith celebrates with Marian Hossa after scoring the winning goal on Sunday as the Blackhawks forced Game 7.
After the Hawks won the past two games by a combined score of 12-2, a close contest seemed to be on tap Sunday. What could not have been predicted was how it would all play out, beginning with Roberto Luongo being benched though not actually on the team bench.
When the Canucks goaltender, pulled in the past two games, emerged from a quiet room somewhere -- not the one reserved for potential concussions -- and took the net for the Canucks in place of an injured Cory Schneider in the third period with the game tied 3-3, the United Center went even more wild than usual.
"That's pretty tough. You're coming off the bench cold, it's never easy," empathized Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford, who was confident in making that statement even in his first NHL season.
For his part, Crawford made everything look easy, particularly during the first 15 and a half minutes of overtime, when he made 12 saves as though he does it every day.
"I don't know, I just felt focused and kind of in the zone and I think when you feel like that and you're just so focused on what you have to do, you don't really think out there," Crawford said of his veteran-like cool. "You're just reacting and playing."
For their part, the actual Hawks veterans contributed as well.
Marian Hossa was not heard from much until he made the winning goal possible, fighting through traffic, keeping the possession alive and getting the puck to Niklas Hjalmarsson, whose wrister bounced off Luongo and dribbled out to where rookie Ben Smith could flip it into the net.
And in a rare penalty-shot opportunity, it was Hawks winger Michael Frolik, perhaps the most active player on the ice all night for the Hawks, along with Dave Bolland, who came hard right at Schneider and flicked the puck in to the left of Schneider's glove to tie the score at 3-all in the third.
The argument could be made that the Hawks did not deserve to win on this night. Trailing 2-1 in the second period, they failed for 1:43 to score on a 5-on-3 opportunity, but eventually defied the hockey adage that says teams that do that don't win.
The Hawks were 0-for-4 on power-play opportunities, though the Canucks were 0-for-2. And Toews is still without a goal in the series after again getting chances.
But Bryan Bickell scored his second goal of the postseason, the end result of a crushing forecheck behind the Canucks net by Bolland on Dan Hamhuis to knot the score at 1-all in the first period.
"That was a big hit and a clean hit too, right?" Bolland smiled. "It was satisfying and led to a big goal as well. But it was a team effort."
Indeed, in overtime, it was Bickell with a big hit -- unpenalized -- on Kevin Bieksa behind the Canucks net that had the Canucks frothing afterward.
"You tell me the difference between that hit and Raffi Torres," said Vancouver general manager Mike Gillis, referring to Torres' penalized hit on Brent Seabrook in Game 3 that resulted in a concussion for Seabrook, who missed the next two games. "This one was worse. [Bickell] left his feet."
At any rate, Tuesday's contest is the biggest hockey game for the Hawks since, well, Sunday night anyway.
"Maybe we have the momentum now and maybe the confidence will be higher," Frolik said. "But it's going to be a new game, a different game. We just have to play the same way we did."
Chances are, it won't be predictable.
"There's too many of these guys, even some who won the Cup last year, who didn't get to play in a Game 7 yet," Toews said. "This is big-time hockey."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.