In the Chicago Blackhawks dressing room Tuesday night, minutes after they won the series against the Minnesota Wild at the Xcel Energy Center, cameras caught Joel Quenneville succinctly expressing his pride as only Coach Q can.
“Great job!” Quenneville barked, clapping his hands together. " ... should be proud. Four times in six years, conference finals.”
Oh, for a Q-Cam inside the Quenneville household late Friday when the Kings eliminated the Ducks in Game 7 to give the Blackhawks home ice for the Western Conference finals that start Sunday at the United Center. This development was worth celebrating too for Quenneville, though perhaps not as loudly for the sake of his neighbors. A victory by the Kings made one wonder whether a title might be in the cards for the Blackhawks in a postseason where results keep falling the defending Stanley Cup champions’ way.
Whether the Blackhawks admit it, they enjoy every advantage against the Kings. Players and coaches correctly will point out the need to elevate their game another level but, as clearly the most complete team still alive, the Blackhawks have no excuse not to consistently play like it. That’s not applying pressure as much as accepting reality.
Sure, the Kings have improved on offense since the Blackhawks beat them in five games in last season’s conference finals and, with the league’s leading playoff scorer in Anze Kopitar, often make the power play look like artistry on ice. But it still shouldn’t matter against a goalie as hot as Corey Crawford. Crawford leads all playoff goalies in save percentage and goals-against average, a list that includes Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick, whom the Blackhawks have chased before in the postseason.
“We’re at the same level we’re at last year,” Quenneville said Saturday as Kings fans everywhere cringed.
In other words, the Blackhawks expect to keep getting better as the stakes increase — as they do. No matter the opponent, the deepest and most talented team remaining knows winning it all again will come down to injury and urgency. They can control the latter. That’s not underestimating the Kings as much as underscoring how circumstances suddenly favor the Blackhawks becoming the first NHL team to repeat in 16 years.
The top six teams are all golfing. It’s the first time since 1993 that no division champion advanced to the conference finals, according to ESPN.
The Bruins no longer loom in the East; the Ducks don’t lurk in the West. The Blackhawks pose the biggest threat to the Blackhawks.
Instead of flying to Southern California on Saturday morning, the rested Blackhawks prepared to host a Kings team that will play roughly 40 hours after its last game 2,000 miles away. People understandably worry about the Blackhawks’ stamina because of a short off-season and the Olympics, but the Kings have played more postseason games than any NHL team since 2012 (52) and have six weary Olympians of their own. They will arrive torrid but tired, hurting without quality defensemen Robyn Regehr and Willie Mitchell and hoping adrenaline can help steal one against a Blackhawks team that has won nine of the last 11 meetings.
“They have three or four of the best players at their position in the world,” Kings Coach Darryl Sutter told reporters Saturday before boarding the team plane. “They know how to win. We do too.”
Indeed, the resilient Kings became the first NHL team to win two straight series in the same postseason while losing three straight games in each series. Only two other NHL teams ever have won six or more elimination games in one postseason, according to the Elias Sports Bureau: the 1975 Islanders and 2003 Wild. That makes the Kings as stubborn as their coach, Sutter, whose toughness endeared him to Chicagoans during stints as a Blackhawks player and coach.
Sutter wore a No. 27 Blackhawks sweater for 406 games from 1979-87, a grinding left winger whose workmanlike effort earned him respect around the city and league. He returned in 1992 to coach the Blackhawks to a 110-80-26 record until resigning in 1995 after a conference finals appearance to take care of his youngest son, Chris, who was born with Down syndrome. A King forever considered Blackhawks royalty, Sutter exudes an ornery persona his team embodies.
“They find ways to be successful,” Quenneville said. “Mutually, there’s a lot of respect. We know it’s going to be a challenging series.”
If it lasts long enough, the Kings like their chances no matter the venue: Mike Richards, Marian Gaborik and Justin Williams improved to 6-0 in Game 7s. Not that such trivia should be relevant this series. Figure the peaking Blackhawks to win in six, sending them back to the Stanley Cup Final for the third time in five years.
Surely that would make Quenneville proud too.