Physical play has become a necessity for finesse-inclined Blackhawks
BY MARK POTASH email@example.com
When you can’t skate, hit.
If that’s not a hockey axiom, it should be. The Blackhawks might be the best finesse team in the NHL. But they’re facing elimination against the Detroit Red Wings because they’re locked in a tight-checking battle that has limited their ability to do what they do best.
‘‘It’s been pretty tight checking — I don’t think anyone really expected that,’’ Hawks free-wheeling winger Patrick Kane said prior to Game 6 on Monday at Joe Louis Arena. ‘‘I think we expected two explosive teams kind of firing back and forth at each other. But it’s been pretty tight-checking from both sides. It’s tough getting chances out there. I guess whoever breaks through, it’s good for their team.’’
The Blackhawks broke through in Game 5 when Bryan Bickell scored on a rebound and Andrew Shaw and Jonathan Toews scored power-play goals in a 4-1 victory that cut the Red Wings series lead to 3-2. But with their playoff lives on the line, the Hawks set the tone with big hits from Bickell, Shaw and Brent Seabrook. That’s not a game the Hawks prefer to play, but they can.
Bickell and Shaw were fitting heroes in a desperation game. They are the two Hawks most willing to mix it up with brute force, which is looking more and more like the key to winning this series. Getting under the opponent’s skin — Dave Bolland’s specialty — is not working against the unflappable Red Wings. But they’re like any other team in hockey — you hit them and they’re going to give up the puck and make more mistakes that create the kind of opportunities the Hawks need to pull out this series.
Bickell, who has four goals and five points in the playoffs, is becoming more and more valuable as the series progresses.
‘‘He had a couple of big hits last game to get us going,’’ Kane said. ‘‘And that first goal was huge, too. He’s played great throughout the playoffs.’’
‘‘We want to get the crowd behind us, get the team into it, get us players into it,’’ Bickell said. ‘‘To be physical for me is important to get me in the game and get the team to show that we’re willing to do what it takes to get the win.’’
Bickell’s physical play has been a luxury on a team that dominated most of the regular season with its skill and speed. Now, it’s a necessity.
‘‘That physical presence is huge for him to bring because there’s not too many guys on our team that can bring that,’’ Kane said. ‘‘He’s a guy we count on to give us big hits. And you see in the third [period] you’re up 3-1 or 4-1 and he’s still hitting guys. It’s big for the team. Sometimes it wears down the other team, too.’’
Actually, it almost always wears down the other team. But Hawks never have needed Bickell’s toughness like they do now.
‘‘Bicks usually finds a way to make an impact in the game,’’ coach Joel Quenneville said. ‘‘We notice him because he gets in on the forecheck and gets a big hit or two early in games and sets the tone.
‘‘His production is kind of a bonus. We like his speed. He’s had a nice year for us. Been consistent with his game. Everybody looks for those types of players and they usually jump out at you come playoff time.’’
The Hawks are built for speed and it’s not surprising they are loath to throw around what weight they have. But they should know by now how big of a difference it can make. Their opening victory over the Minnesota Wild in the first-round was decided on a picture perfect play, when Johnny Oduya feathered a pass off the glass to a speeding Viktor Stalberg, who fed Bickell in the slot for a game-winning goal in overtime. That play started when Shaw laid a big hit on Torrey Mitchell at the other end of the rink.
And it was Shaw’s perseverance against the Red Wings’ Niklas Kronwall in front of the Wings’ net that put him in position to deflect a Duncan Keith shot past Jimmy Howard for a tie-breaking goal in Game 5. Shaw gave Kronwall a two-handed shove to finally establish his position on that play.
Shaw is 5-foot-10, 180. He does his dirty work on guts as much as size and strength. If more Hawks players took Shaw’s lead in that area, the Hawks wouldn’t have a ‘‘net presence’’ problem.
‘‘He’s relentless in that area for the big size defenseman he’s got to try to combat just to get there,’’ coach Joel Quenneville said. ‘‘It’s on ongoing challenge [to get more players willing to do that]. You watch it and admire what he does and I think we can take a note from that. I thought we were better across the board in that area [in Game 5]. We still have to be tenacious and relentless in that area.’’