CHICAGO – Jonathan Toews has earned the name “Captain Serious,” a 22-year-old star for the Chicago Blackhawks who senses how close his team is to reaching the Stanley Cup final while realizing just how difficult it can be to get there.
A year ago the Blackhawks were knocked out of the Western Conference final in five games by Detroit, an experience that ripened a young team.
Now the Blackhawks have a 3-0 lead over San Jose and can complete a sweep Sunday for the franchise’s first appearance in the finals since 1992—when Toews was four years old.
“When you get to the conference final like last year, you get that close—even though we were only about halfway to winning a Stanley Cup last year—you still feel pretty close,” said Toews, who has a point in a club-record 12 straight playoff games.
“It’s kind of a teaser. Makes you want to win that much more. You feel like you got so much to lose when you’re in a position like we are this year. Every game is so stressful, it’s tough to go to sleep at night thinking about it.”
The series with the Sharks, the regular season champions in the West, has been fast-paced, physical and oh so close. Chicago won two on the Sharks’ home ice and then pulled out a 3-2 overtime victory Friday night on Dustin Byfuglien’s goal.
“It doesn’t feel like a 3-0 series but it is,” San Jose coach Todd McLellan said.
His team was about as relaxed as could be Saturday, playing a boisterous game with a soccer ball in the hallway of the United Center, bouncing and kicking the ball to one another while in a circle.
“We have no other choice but to be loose. We’re down three games in this series and we understand that position,” San Jose defenceman Rob Blake said. “But if we sit there and dwell and look at the big picture, it looks bleak, obviously, so we accept things.”
Blake said the Sharks don’t have to do too much differently, make some minor adjustments, get better rebound chances against stellar Chicago goalie Antti Niemi and maybe spruce up their power play. They were just 1-for-6 with the advantage on Friday.
San Jose can also look at two other series to size up where it is. Philadelphia came from 3-0 down to beat Boston in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
And the Sharks led the Red Wings 3-0 in the Western semifinals, were routed 7-1 in Game 4 and then clinched the series in five games.
McLellan reminded his team of that series when he met with the players on Saturday.
“We talked about the pressure we felt when we came home after getting shellacked in Detroit,” McLellan said. “Detroit played very loose in that game, Game 4. Came out, threw everything they had at us.
“We’d like to come out, throw everything we have, play loose against Chicago, then put a little pressure on them after that. We’ve got to take step one first.”
Patrick Marleau has scored four of the Sharks’ five goals in the series. Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Dany Heatley haven’t found the net in three games so far.
McLellan juggled his lines Friday night but the Sharks still had trouble solving Niemi, who made 44 saves and shut down three power plays in the third period.
“He’s been very good and you don’t get this far in the playoffs without a good goaltender,” Blake said. “He’s been up to every task. He made some big saves last night. We can do some things with our second opportunities, which are tough to get with the way their defence plays.”
Chicago’s checking line led by Dave Bolland—who had a breakaway goal and then assisted Byfuglien on his game-winner—has been a key as has the play of durable defenceman Duncan Keith, who had a game-high 34 minutes 44 seconds of ice time Friday.
Keith skated for the Blackhawks just three years ago when the United Center was half empty, the fan base had become apathetic, and hockey was low on the interest scale in Chicago.
Now the place rocks loudly, and the Game 3 attendance of 22,311 was the team’s 98th consecutive capacity crowd.
“We’re in a great position. We’re one win away from a chance to play for the Cup,” Keith said.
“I think just using that as motivation and understanding our position and the opportunity we have should be enough to play the way we should and play a smart game. Hopefully we can do that on Sunday. … I don’t think we want to give these guys any life right now. They haven’t had it yet. So there’s no point on giving it to them now.”