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Blackhawks will need every bit of toughness against Kings

Kings defenseman Jake Muzzkeeps Hawks center Jonathan Toews off balance first period NHL game between Chicago Blackhawks L.A. Kings Monday

Kings defenseman Jake Muzzin keeps Hawks center Jonathan Toews off balance in the first period of the NHL game between the Chicago Blackhawks and L.A. Kings Monday March 25, 2013 at the United Center. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: June 30, 2013 8:29PM

They’re vulnerable now. Human, at the very least. The heady days of The Streak — that delirious 24-game run to open the season when the Blackhawks’ confidence against any team and in any situation bordered on cockiness, and an aura of invincibility followed them around North America — are long gone now. The Minnesota Wild poked a few holes in that bubble. The Detroit Red Wings darn near burst it completely.

The first two rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs exposed the Hawks as mere mortals, capable of off nights and individual slumps and fits of rage and bouts of frustration and defensive breakdowns and soft goals.

But the Red Wings series — that manic, frantic, bewildering, enthralling Red Wings series — also revealed something else about the Hawks. It revealed character. It revealed a physical and mental toughness that many skeptics weren’t sure they had.

Yes, the Hawks are a “finesse team” — a borderline derisive term that makes hockey players cringe. They’re built on skill not size, talent not tenacity. But it took something else, something deeper, to do what the Hawks did against Detroit. To come back from a 3-1 series deficit. To win Game 6 at Joe Louis Arena. To overcome the raw emotions — the sight of the unflappable Jonathan Toews standing at the bench and furiously slamming his stick over the boards onto the ice won’t soon be forgotten — of having the apparent game-winning goal disallowed with 1:47 left in the third period of a Game 7 against one of their biggest rivals.

The stakes were impossibly high. Imagine if, in the wake of Niklas Hjalmarsson’s non-goal, the Red Wings went on to win. It’s entirely conceivable that there would have been significant changes — a front-office shakeup perhaps, or a coaching change, or a major roster overhaul — after a third straight premature playoff exit, all because a whistle-happy Stephen Walkom made what has universally been deemed a bad call on Brandon Saad far behind the actual play. That’s how razor-thin the margin of error was in this series, with this team, after this regular season.

“It’s a relief you won the series,” Patrick Kane said. “It was a tough-fought series, down 3-1, to come back. I think [now] we realized how good we can be. You don’t want to put yourself in that hole. But for us to get out of it and come back and win, not many teams can say they’ve done that. Proves a lot in here.”

Indeed, the Hawks were the 230th team in NHL history to trail 3-1 in a series, and just the 21st ever to come back and win.

But it only gets tougher from here. The Los Angeles Kings are maybe the most difficult matchup for the Hawks in the league. They’re huge. They’re physical. They’re skilled. They’re deep. They have a ridiculously hot goalie in Jonathan Quick. They’ve yet to lose at home this postseason. They can skate with the Hawks. And they’re playoff tested, rolling to the Stanley Cup as an eight-seed last season, and grinding their way past the Blues (six games) and Sharks (seven games) in the first two rounds this year.

Like the Hawks, they’re weary and surely a little banged up (Jarret Stoll is still questionable after suffering a concussion at the hands of Raffi Torres). But for the first time all season, the Hawks walk into a situation in which they’re not prohibitive, no-doubt favorites. As Kings coach and former Hawks player and coach Darryl Sutter put it in February, when the Hawks were soaring and the Kings were scuffling, “They’re not on a different planet than us.” Back then, he might have been trying to convince himself of that, as the Hawks were downright otherworldly at the time.

But now? The Hawks aren’t even on a different block.

To call the Hawks underdogs might be a stretch. If anything, it’s a toss-up. But in a season in which everything came so easy for so long, things have suddenly gotten awfully difficult. They fought their way back against the Red Wings with grit and guts and determination. And it’s going to take that same newfound defiant toughness — a different kind of confidence than the one they had during The Streak, but perhaps a more useful one this time of year — to dethrone the Kings.

“The guys poured everything out there,” Toews said. “It’s an amazing feeling, doing something like that. We’re only halfway to where we want to go, but to win a series like that, that’s huge for our confidence. Huge for everyone in this room.”

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