The biggest obstacle on the nine-week journey to hockey’s Stanley Cup is the fickle finger of fate.
In no other sport do the fortunes of the best teams at the highest level so often hinge on a clink, a clank or a wayward bounce — to an almost unfair degree. It’s as if the puck is the shape of a football when the playoffs begin. Imagine if almost every baseball playoff game was determined by a bad-hop single. In all its glorious excitement and misery, that’s the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“You [talk about] the hockey gods,’’ Patrick Sharp said on the eve of the Blackhawks’ playoff opener against the St. Louis Blues at Scottrade Center. “Every playoff game, it seems to be a fine line between winning and losing. You’ve got to be comfortable playing in those tight games. I think both teams are. I would expect the series to be tight one-goal games every game.’’
With their fate up in the air almost no matter how well they play, the Hawks can only hope that experience makes a difference. They have 20 players from last year’s Stanley Cup championship team; 16 of them have played together the last three seasons.
But the heart of this team remains “the core,’’ the seven players who have been a part of two Stanley Cup championship teams: forwards Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Sharp and Patrick Kane and defensemen Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson.
With Hossa playing as well as he has with the Hawks at 35, it’s fair to say that as a group, the core might be better than ever. The Hawks are 35-17 in the playoffs over the last four seasons with the core intact. They’ve won eight of nine series, the only loss to the Vancouver Canucks in 2011 on a Game 7 goal in overtime on the road.
“A lot of us have been here a long time and know what it takes and know what it feels like, especially this time of year — the feeling around the room, the feeling going into the playoffs,’’ Kane said.
The beauty of the core is the intangible effect they have on the entire team. That’s what coach Joel Quenneville appreciates most about his veteran group.
“Their professionalism, their consistency. The way they approach every game,’’ he said. “Their desire to be the best they can be, to win, to be a champion is reflected by their every-day approach. Making people around them better is part of it as well.’’
The Blackhawks’ core is strong enough, deep enough and versatile enough to keep the team in contention until further notice. It’s a credit to the man who put it together — former GM Dale Tallon — and the man who identified the right pieces and kept it together — current GM Stan Bowman. And, of course, the man who knows what he has and what to do with it — Quenneville.
“We’re fortunate to have that type of group,’’ Quenneville said. “Great core. Great leadership group. Great experience playing in big games, big moments in big stages. The bigger the challenge, the bigger the test and these guys are excited about it.’’
Regardless of the impact, it’s a great start for a team with a rough road ahead, likely four playoff series without home-ice advantage to win their third Cup in five years.
“It’s a good group,’’ Kane said. “Maybe the best thing about it is we’ve been together for awhile. It’s important for success to be close with your team. With the success we’ve had, especially winning last year, it feels like when you have the same group together that you can do it again.’’