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Blackhawks need to play smarter, not harder

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Updated: April 20, 2014 4:30PM



They’re built on speed and skill and talent and all that elegant and electric highlight-reel stuff, but the Blackhawks are first and foremost professional athletes — hyper-competitive alpha males, running on adrenaline, testosterone and pride.

And nobody likes to be pushed around.

“You can’t just be hit,” Michal Rozsival said. “Sometimes, you’ve got to give a hit, too. We can’t have them bully us all the time.”

Of course, as so many of us non-professional athletes — running on adrenaline, self-preservation and good old-fashioned fear — learned over the years, the best way to deal with a bully is to ignore him. To not let him get in your head. To not fall into his trap. To not let him win.

The Hawks are letting the Blues win.

The Hawks are losing their composure, losing the puck and losing games. They’re jumping into shoving matches after nearly every whistle and running their mouths. They’re running around looking for hits instead of the puck. They’re taking liberties they usually don’t take, getting away with some (Duncan Keith with a few aggressive slashes) and getting tagged on others (Kris Versteeg tackling Derek Roy well after a whistle, Bryan Bickell’s knee-on-knee hit of Vladimir Sobotka, and of course, Brent Seabrook’s devastating hit on David Backes that earned the defenseman a three-game suspension).

They’re playing Blues hockey. Which is exactly what the Blues want. The Blues are doing all those things, too, of course. They’re just better at it.

“We might have played into their hands, but we’ve got to get back to our hockey,” said Brandon Saad, one of the few Hawks to admit that maybe they need to rein themselves in a bit as they try to rally from a 2-0 series deficit. “Because when we’re playing that way, we do a good job and that’s how we win.”

Exactly. The Hawks, who’ve always bristled a bit at the “finesse” label, have proven their manliness in the past, showing they can handle the rough stuff. And as Michal Handzus was quick to point out, the Hawks went from awful to all right once they started hitting back in the second period of Game 2 — actually out-hitting the Blues in that period.

But if you’re hitting, it means you don’t have the puck. And the Hawks win with their puck-possession game, not their physical play. It’s a fine line — one they walked expertly against Los Angeles and Boston last spring, but one they’ve clearly crossed already in this series. The Hawks have been hit with 15 penalties through two games. And while the penalty-kill has been superb, going 8-for-9 in Game 2, that one failure came more than 4:40 into the charging major Seabrook was assessed for a hit he probably doesn’t make in a less amped-up game.

As good as the PK has been, the Hawks can’t possibly win this series using it nine times a game. They’ve got to keep their heads in the game, and out of, well, other places.

“Obviously, we cannot take as many penalties as [Game 2],” said Handzus, who bounced back from two poor periods to play a tremendous third, particularly on the PK. “We can be more disciplined, that’s for sure. But you need to play physical, and you’ve got to push back right away.”

Perhaps. But only to an extent. The Hawks can’t sacrifice the puck for a hit. They can’t get away from what makes them great. While they’ve been playing the Blues’ game, the Hawks forwards have just one goal through two games. The power play has just seven shots in its last nine opportunities. The quick, tape-to-tape passes from the defense that stretch the opponent to their limits and make it so hard to catch (let alone hit) the Hawks have been non-existent. Their speed — their greatest asset — has been all but neutralized.

The Hawks are less than two minutes away from a 2-0 series lead. It’s been that close. Emotions are running hot, and the teams’ mutual hatred grows uglier with each passing period. But as the series shifts to the United Center, the answer isn’t to hit back harder. The answer is to play Hawks hockey.

The Blues, who have plenty of talent of their own to go along with their physicality, will look to avenge Backes. They’ll take their usual liberties and play their usual head games. They’ll try to goad the Hawks into more skirmishes, more penalties, more uncharacteristic play. If they succeed, they’ll win this series. And soon.

It’s time for the Hawks to do what they do best — skate, pass, score. Because the best way to deal with bullies isn’t to fight them on their terms, it’s to make them look silly on yours.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus



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