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Blackhawks playing underdog card, but will it work in Detroit?

Updated: May 27, 2013 1:40PM

The Blackhawks were the best team in the NHL this season, tearing through the Western Conference with only seven regulation or overtime losses, setting records and capturing national attention along the way.

The Red Wings, meanwhile, barely made the playoffs.

Yet here are the Hawks, playing the underdog card, playing free and easy, playing as if there’s no pressure at all as they head into Game 6 Monday night in Detroit, trailing the Western Conference semifinal 3-2.

“The pressure’s on them to eliminate us; they have our backs against the wall,” said Andrew Shaw, who had two goals in the Hawks’ breakthrough 4-1 victory Saturday in Game 5 at the United Center. “Everyone thinks that Detroit’s going to take the series. The pressure’s off us.”

Whether that’s true — given the Hawks’ No. 1 seed, given the offseason ramifications that a third straight early postseason exit could have, given the way the Hawks were heavily favored entering the series — doesn’t really matter. Yes, Bryan Bickell said the Hawks have nothing to lose when, really, they stand to lose everything with one more loss.

But so what?

What matters is whether the Hawks believe it. And can use it.

Because whatever was going through their minds during a thoroughly dominant Game 5 performance — whatever sparked their stagnant offense, whatever triggered their more physical play, whatever woke up their dormant power play — worked. And if telling themselves they’re playing with house money at this point is what it takes, what does it matter if it’s true or not?

“I thought, going into the game, the approach was really good around the room,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “As far as pressure, no pressure. It was up to us to just play. We did a lot of good things, and that’s how we have to continue to play.’’

Of course, playing loose at home is one thing. Playing that way at Joe Louis Arena, where the funky boards and insolent posts — not to mention the Detroit forecheck — have been most unkind to the Hawks, is entirely different. The Hawks won twice in Detroit during the regular season, including a 7-1 laugher, but dropped Games 3 and 4 there, putting them in this predicament in the first place.

The Hawks made crisper passes in Game 5 than they did in the two games at the Joe. They freed up Jonathan Toews from Henrik Zetterberg by having the last line change. They stretched the Wings through the neutral zone to open up the offense. They even got a few favorable bounces and were clearly energized in the early going by a tense but raucous crowd.

“They got some favorable bounces with their old boards and the home ice, but we just have to have the same mind-set that we did coming into the last game,” Bickell said of playing in Detroit.

Leave it to wily veteran Duncan Keith to be the voice of reason, however. He dismissed the idea of being an underdog, dismissed the idea of having a psychological edge, dismissed the idea of having 20,000 screaming Red Wings fans (and a stray airborne octopus or two) having any real impact on the on-ice chess match.

“I don’t think there’s any difference other than the crowd’s cheering for them,” he said. “It’s just like any other building. Fun place to play. Good atmosphere.”

To Keith, it’s all pretty simple. The Hawks played well in Game 5. If that continues, so will their season. If they don’t, well, then there really will be nothing left to lose.

“They’re trying to close us out, and we’re trying to win a hockey game and tie up the series,” Keith said. “I don’t really look at it as anything more than that.”

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