Blackhawks know how to play better as games get more meaningful

Blackhawks know how to play better as games get more meaningful
Chicago Blackhawks Jonathan Toews fights for the puck against Tampa Bay Lighting Ryan Callahan during Game Five of the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday. (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

The goal that put the Chicago Blackhawks in position to win the Stanley Cup on Monday was scored by Antoine Vermette, who was a healthy scratch once during the Western Conference finals, off the rebound of a shot by Kris Versteeg, who had been scratched several times during the playoffs.

Their first goal in that game against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday was scored by Patrick Sharp, with an assist to Teuvo Teravainen, also a healthy scratch once during the West finals. Goaltender Corey Crawford, relegated to backup status three times during the Blackhawks' first-round series against Nashville, made 31 saves to preserve a 2-1 victory and turn Game 6 at the United Center into a potential Cup clincher.

Getting this far in the playoffs is about talent, depth, endurance and adapting. Blackhawks Coach Joel Quenneville's ability to react and retrench — he restored Vermette, Versteeg and Teravainen to the lineup and gave them prominent roles — is a key reason the Blackhawks are poised to end a thrillingly close Cup Final.

As they did in winning the last two games of the West finals against the Ducks, the Blackhawks are getting better as the Cup Final unfolds. Much of that comes from the character of their core players, seven of whom hope to be fitted for their third Cup rings.


"I think in playoffs you're not just playing the opposition, you play against yourself, too, as a team," defenseman Johnny Oduya said Sunday. "You've got to be able to go through these patches where things are not going your way, it's up and down, and still be able as a group to come out and get some results. I think that's a strength of our team."


Quenneville's hand is very much behind that push to peak at the right time.

"Joel has done an incredible job of, I think, just gauging where we're at throughout some of these series, knowing what our team needs to do, what look we need to change as far as matchups or lineup combinations, things like that," center Jonathan Toews said. "I think he identifies things that will make us stronger going into the later games in the series …

"We get into these later games where we have the chance to play games that are more meaningful, I think that's when we play our best."

Quenneville has outcoached his Tampa Bay counterpart, Jon Cooper, and has been able to get matchups he wants even on the road. The Lightning has held its own, but center Steven Stamkos hasn't been able to fight through the Blackhawks' stifling defense, and the line of Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov and Tyler Johnson has been blanked the past two games, 2-1 Chicago victories. Kucherov, incidentally, might play Monday after hitting his head on the post Saturday and missing most of that game.

"I think we're a growing type of team," Tampa Bay defenseman Anton Stralman said, a valid point. He and his teammates are learning the extremes they must reach in the playoffs. The Blackhawks already know what it takes and are putting that into practice as they get better every game.

"A lot of it is our top guys rise to the challenge. The bigger the game, whether they have a settling influence in the locker room, their linemates, they make guys around them better, the way they prepare," Quenneville said. "They know it's an important game. The bigger the setting, they rise to that challenge. It's a compliment to them.

"I think our team game relies on consistency, predictability, not wavering too much. That helps, as well."

Stamkos said he wants to be "a guy that can step up." He added, "There's two games scheduled left in the season. We can be part of that," he said of a possible Game 7 on Wednesday at Tampa.

Cooper said the Lightning needs Stamkos to rise to the occasion, "and I have no doubt he will." The whole team must go from growing to grown. "I've loved our will. We've set a bar for us that's been fantastic," Cooper said. "But now, for Game 6, we're going to have to rise above that. We have to find a way."

The Blackhawks appear to have found it. They won the Cup on their first try in 2010 and 2013, and this time, they can do it on home ice for the first time since 1938. The buzz around the building will be palpable. "It's not just another game, but that's the way we've got to try to approach it," defenseman Brent Seabrook said. "It's just another game, a hockey game. We've got to go out there and remember that, try to be at our best."

Their best should be more than good enough.

Twitter: @helenenothelen