Virtually every hockey media personality has picked them to win in four or five games. They are the prohibitive favorites to win the Stanley Cup. They have been praised for “saving hockey” by a national publication.
The Chicago Blackhawks have been the center of attention all season long, but now, with the playoffs finally beginning on Tuesday night at the United Center, the real test begins.
It would be reasonable to suggest that potentially all this pressure could negatively impact a team. For years, we have been probable favorites to go down in stunning fashion, whether in the first round like the President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals or Vancouver Canucks, or later down the line, like when the San Jose Sharks were unceremoniously swept out of the conference finals by these Blackhawks in 2010. The playoff cauldron has vanquished many teams with high Cup aspirations, but the Hawks may very well be immune to that kind of disaster.
The veteran nature of the squad should prevent a lot of the commotion from getting to the team. Guys like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, while young in age, have both been through the wringer several times, having made the playoffs for five consecutive seasons. Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp, both in their 30’s, have also felt the constant pressure that comes with playoff hockey for a good chunk of their careers. Finally, the guys like Michal Handzus and Ray Emery, the true definitions of “cagey veteran,” bring some grit and perspective into the dressing room.
Even with all of those veterans, the youth of this team can be an asset as well. Guys like Bryan Bickell and Viktor Stalberg, who either weren’t around (Stalberg) or weren’t on the ice much (Bickell) in 2010, now are driven by a hunger to succeed that a veteran may have a difficult time conjuring up. Brandon Saad, playing alongside Toews and Hossa when the series begins, plays the game with a fearlessness and confidence that exceeds his 20 years. Nick Leddy also patrols the blue line with a nose for the puck and a willingness to take a hit in order to make a play.
Despite all of these players who could prove to be assets when the lights are the brightest, it is head coach Joel Quenneville that could ultimately be the biggest boost of all. He is known for getting irate at officials while coaching the team, but he is still just as angered by losing as he is overjoyed by winning, and perhaps even more so. That kind of aversion to defeat can be contagious to a team, and Quenneville certainly knows how to convey disappointment and frustration without having to say a word.
All season long, during the 24 game points streak to begin the campaign and beyond, critics have gleefully pointed out that anything less than a Stanley Cup championship for this bunch would be considered an abject disappointment, and they would largely be right. This team has captured the attention of Chicago in a way that no team has since the 1990’s Chicago Bulls did, and that’s saying something considering how dead the sport of hockey was in the Windy City as recently as seven years ago. If the Hawks were to fall short, then not only would the guys in skates be disappointed, but all their legions of fans sporting new Toews and Kane jerseys, as well as those wearing vintage Bobby Hull or Stan Mikita attire, would be too.
That kind of crushing civic pressure may have an effect on a team that is reliant on a couple certain players for their success, but the way that the Blackhawks operate, it shares the burden in a way that no other team aside from the Pittsburgh Penguins can. That knowledge that not every mistake will be a costly one should give this team the boost of confidence that it needs to survive any adversity that they will face during these playoffs, and as such it can safely be said that fans worried about whether or not the Hawks can survive the crucible of postseason hockey should direct their concerns elsewhere.
This team is hungry, confident, and eager to prove that the first round exits of the last two years are a thing of the past.