CHICAGO – The Stanley Cup final looked considerably different as the Chicago Blackhawks returned to United Center on Saturday morning.
A heavy rain greeted players as they assembled back in the Windy City and that was nothing compared to the sea of questions hovering over them after letting the Philadelphia Flyers back into the championship series.
Earlier in the week, they left here on a high with a 2-0 lead and seemingly all of the momentum. At that time, one local columnist wrote that the series felt over. Another Chicago paper carried a story saying the team might have played its final home game of the season.
Then they went to Philadelphia and everything changed.
“We’re not happy coming back from Philly with two losses,” Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp said Saturday. “But we realize that they’re two games that we know we can do things better in. We’ve still yet to play our best game. We’re still a confident group.
“I think that swagger you talk about is still in this room and hopefully we can use it to our advantage in Game 5.”
Expect the Blackhawks to have a different look when they take the ice on Sunday night (CBC, 8 p.m. ET) with the series tied 2-2.
Coach Joel Quenneville dropped Patrick Kane off the top line in favour of Andrew Ladd during Game 4 and hinted that he might continue to keep Kane and Jonathan Toews apart. That might be one way to lessen the considerable impact defenceman Chris Pronger has had so far.
Quenneville sounded anxious to make a change.
“When you’re winning, I think I’m very patient,” he said. “When you come off a couple of games like that, you look at doing different things. I think as we’ve gone along all year we’re not afraid to mix it up.
“We have a lot of options.”
Chicago’s biggest concern is finding a way around Pronger. The bruising Flyers veteran has effectively shut down Dustin Byfuglien and leads all players in the series with a plus-7 rating through four games.
However, he’s more than happy to spread the credit around.
“If you go back and look, our forwards have done a great job,” said Pronger. “If you look at the line that’s scoring against them, it’s the (Danny) Briere line that’s done a great job of making them play defence, which obviously they don’t want to do.
“They want to play offence, they want to have the puck, they want to control the pace of the game.”
With the Blackhawks talking about making adjustments, there’s a feeling that Philadelphia has done a better job of imposing its will on this series. But Flyers captain Mike Richards doesn’t believe Chicago’s line juggling signals any panic.
“I don’t think we have them on the run,” said Richards. “I think throughout a playoff series you make adjustments (depending) on how things are going and what you see out there. …
“They’re probably just trying to create some chemistry or maybe create a spark for their offence a little bit.”
Quenneville can’t be blamed for wanting to do that. His best offensive players have struggled to score in the Stanley Cup after being on a tear throughout the post-season—Toews, Kane and Byfuglien have combine for one goal and four assists in the series.
They’ve had trouble matching up against an aggressive Flyers team.
“I think they’re doing a pretty good job defensively,” said Kane. “I think one of the reasons they’re playing so good defensively is they have the puck a lot against us and they are making some plays.”
Philadelphia has seemed to grow stronger as the series has gone on—a pattern it has consistently followed throughout these playoffs. In fact, the Flyers haven’t suffered a loss after Game 3 in a series all spring.
They have a swagger of their own after a post-season run that virtually no one could have predicted. The Philadelphia players don’t seem daunted by having to win at least one game at the United Center to lift the Stanley Cup.
“We’ve been a great road team all year long,” said Richards. “We’ve been a great road team in the playoffs. To win in difficult buildings—Boston, Montreal—we don’t want to change anything up from what we did in the first two games (in Chicago).
“It’s just a matter of execution.”
This year’s final has followed the exact same pattern as the roller-coaster ride Pittsburgh and Detroit went on last June. After losing two games at Mellon Arena to allow the series to get to 2-2, the Red Wings fought back with a 5-0 win in Game 5.
It’s something the Blackhawks feel capable of doing as well—even though the momentum seems to have shifted to Philadelphia.
“It’s so close out there that every game can go either way,” said Sharp. “Now is not the time to reinvent anything. We’ve had a gameplan, we’ve had a team system all season long that’s got us to this point. And we know we can win with the way we’re playing.”