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Blackhawks have all the momentum and pressure for Game 7

Updated: May 29, 2013 1:06PM



When the final horn sounds at the United Center on Wednesday night, be it at the end of a blowout or the moment of an overtime goal, the Blackhawks instantly will be anointed either indomitable conquerers with an iron will, or colossal disappointments with a questionable makeup. It’s the cruel reality of the made-for-TV-debate era of sports — there’s simply no in between.

For the Hawks, there’s no saving face, just saving a season.

“It’s all for nothing if we can’t win the next game here,” Niklas Hjalmarsson said.

The record 21-0-3 start. The cover of Sports Illustrated. The LeBron James tweets. The President’s Trophy. The endless hype and accolades. And the ongoing dramatic comeback in the Western Conference semifinal against Detroit. For any of it to mean anything in the long run, to save it all from the dustbin of forgotten history, the Hawks simply have to do one thing: Win Game 7.

On Wednesday night at a United Center that’s sure to be rocking even more than it did for Tuesday night’s Rolling Stones concert — Mick and Keith have nothing on Tazer and Kaner in this town — the Hawks will be playing not just to keep their season alive, but possibly to keep their team together, and to justify all that hype, all that confidence, all that a remarkable regular-season brought.

As if a Game 7 needed any added pressure.

“There’s pressure on both teams,” said Hawks captain Jonathan Toews. “Both teams really want to win. I think most of that pressure comes from within. You want to win for yourself. You want to win for the guys next to you. And it was no breeze getting to this point. Even though it was a shortened season, every guy in this room — whether they play every night or the guys that sacrifice their playing time and get scratched — paid the price to get here. That’s where the pressure comes from and nowhere else.”

To their credit, the Hawks haven’t yet let that pressure get to them. Facing a 3-1 series deficit after two frustrating losses at Joe Louis Arena, the Hawks went out of their way to put on a brave face, to smile in the face of adversity and say how “fun” it was, how “confident” they were, how “close” they were to turning things around.

Then they did just that, winning two straight games, including Monday night’s stirring come-from-behind 4-3 victory in Game 6. Now the roles have reversed. Red Wings coach Mike Babcock was the one smiling in the face of crushing defeat, saying how well his team played, how close it was, and how fun a Game 7 would be. His players echoed the sentiment.

The momentum has clearly shifted back to the Hawks. But so has the pressure. After five days of talking about having nothing to lose and playing free and easy, the Hawks enter Game 7 again saddled with the burden of expectations, and the burden of proof — proof that they really are the best team in the NHL, proof that they really are built to win a Stanley Cup.

But the company line hasn’t shifted along with the momentum.

“It’s not about who has the pressure,” Hjalmarsson said. “It’s just one game. You win, you go to the next round. You lose, you’re out. Personally, I love to play those type of games. That’s why the playoffs are special.”

Among the Hawks who’ll be on the ice on Wednesday, only Marian Hossa (six) and Michal Handzus (four) have been in more than one Game 7. Hossa is 1-5 in those games, Handzus 2-2. For the rest of the veterans, the 2011 Game 7 at Vancouver — an overtime loss after the Hawks erased a 3-0 series deficit — is their only Game 7 experience. Meanwhile, nine of the Red Wings expected to dress have played in at least four. And every one of them has a winning record in those games, including a first-round victory on the road at Anaheim.

No matter, the Hawks say. After all, this will be their third Game 7 in five days.

“I thought we just played two Game 7s,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “So we’re looking forward to the real Game 7. We’ve put ourselves in a good position and I’m excited about it.”

Considering where they were less than a week ago, it’s a great position, and a hard-earned one at that. But it’s also a precarious one. Win, and it’s heroic. Lose, and it’s all for naught.

“We still know if you lose, it’s all a waste,” Hossa said.



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