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When going gets tough, Wings’ Smith says Hawks turn it up a notch

Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews right celebrates with Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook after Seabrook's overtime winning goal Game 7

Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews, right, celebrates with Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook after Seabrook's overtime winning goal in Game 7 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Western Conference semifinals against the Detroit Red Wings, Wednesday, May 29, 2013, in Chicago. The Blackhawks won 2-1. (AP Photo/Daily Herald, Steve Lundy) MANDATORY CREDIT; MAGS OUT; TV OUT

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Updated: May 30, 2013 10:14PM

We’ve all heard about the Blackhawks’ ‘‘compete level,’’ and how critical it is to the team’s postseason success. But Red Wings defenseman Brendan Smith has seen it up close.

‘‘I don’t know what you guys see. I just know that they’re a great team,’’ Smith said prior to the Hawks’ 2-1 overtime victory in Game 7 on Wednesday night. ‘‘When their backs are against the wall, they push even harder. It’s pretty impressive to see that. A lot of those skill guys actually got a little chippy and try to work a little bit harder and fought battles a little bit more.’’

But even Smith was surprised by what he saw in the playoffs — how the Blackhawks struggle to take advantage of momentum but turn it up a notch when the going gets tough. Just 20 minutes from elimination, the Hawks — who had scored two goals three games while falling behind 3-1 earlier in the series — scored three goals in an 8:52 span of the third period with their playoff lives on the line to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 4-2 lead.

That could be the ‘‘defining moment’’ Hawks coach Joel Quenneville was looking for. Just as Patrick Kane’s game-tying goal with 14 seconds left in regulation in Game 5 against the Nashville Predators sparked the run to the 2010 Stanley Cup, the recovery against the Red Wings — from down 3-1 in general and the third-period flurry in Game 6 in particular — seems like a launching point for a team that was the best in hockey in the regular season.

‘‘It’s impressive to see the competition level bump up that much more,’’ said Smith, a 24-year-old rookie. ‘‘I’ve been saying that, but every game it gets even higher. It’s something I can learn from. I’m a very competitive guy. [But] I think there’s still more for me to even compete at.

‘‘You see it out here. Some of these guys that [people] say aren’t competitive and their give-a-[bleep] meter is really low, you see them come out and play really tough. I don’t think I’ve seen guys like [Patrick] Kane and [Patrick] Sharp play as hard as I have other than this series. It’s pretty cool to see and cool to see their game evolve like that.’’

More than the matchups or their experience or their depth or having Jonathan Toews, Kane, Sharp and Corey Crawford on their side, it’s pretty clear after the 4-3 series victory over the Red Wings that the best thing the Hawks have going for them is that intangible that made them a championship team in 2010 — their uncanny knack for playing their best when they really need it.

Off the first two rounds, the Los Angeles Kings arguably are the better team in the Western Conference finals. They’re defending Stanley Cup champions with the even hotter goaltender who can pound the Hawks much more than the Red Wings did, but with the star power to match them at the other end.

What we don’t know is how much the Hawks are going to raise their level of play to meet the challenge. For a finesse team with skilled skaters and playmakers, they seem to be able to morph into any team they need to be.

It remains to be seen how long it will take to respond. When Johnny Oduya and Michal Rozsival led the team in playing time in Game 1 against the Minnesota Wild, it was pretty obvious that would not work later in the playoffs. But it wasn’t until the Hawks were down 3-1 to the Red Wings that Brent Seabrook started playing a significantly bigger role than Rozsival. And only then did the series turn in the Hawks’ favor.

‘‘Resilient,’’ said Seabrook when asked what he learned about his team. ‘‘I don’t think we played as well as we could during the Minnesota series. I don’t think we played very well the first four games against Detroit. Give Detroit credit. They played us hard and tough and took us out of our element. We had to fight through that.’’

Eventually they did, emerging with nothing more than a few scorch marks from playing with fire a few times. The next step is a bigger one. A lot of experts like the Kings here and for good reason. But you can’t underestimate the Hawks’ ability to be as good as they need to be.

At this point in 2010, the Hawks were underdogs against the No. 1 seeded San Jose Sharks in the conference finals. The Sharks had home-ice advantage. The Hawks struggled to beat the Canucks in six games. Antti Niemi looked vulnerable in goal, allowing four goals or more in three games.

What was largely not accounted for was the Hawks raising their level of play. They hadlost the opener of their first two series that year. But without home-ice advantage, they started quickly and won both games in San Jose. Instead of a vulnerable playoff rookie, it turned out that Niemi had the quality the Hawks needed — a knack for allowing fewer goals than his team scored. After allowing all those goals against the Canucks, he stopped 44 of 45 shots to steal Game 1.

Even the most optimistic outlook had the Hawks winning in six games. They won in a sweep, not because they were dominant but because they were as good as they had to be — winning 2-1, 4-2, 3-2 in overtime and 4-2 with an empty-netter.

This is a different year with a different scenario. The Sharks, as it turned out, were a shaky top-seeded team. The Kings are the defending champions with the best goaltender in the playoffs. As the comparison to 2010 goes, the Hawks’ degree-of-difficulty is tougher this year. But we still haven’t seen just how how they can go. They have earned the right to say they’ll be as good as they can be.

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