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Clutch as Blackhawks are, they must raise game to survive

Updated: June 17, 2014 2:05PM



Patrick Kane wasn’t trying to be flippant, and he certainly wasn’t trying to insult the Minnesota Wild. After a lucky bounce led to his series-clinching overtime goal in Game 6 on Tuesday night, Kane knew the Blackhawks were fortunate to be advancing to the Western Conference final.

‘‘We still feel we have another level to get to,’’ Kane said. ‘‘It’s exciting to say you didn’t play your best and you still won a series in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.’’

He’s right. The Hawks haven’t been at their best. They’ve been good. At times, they’ve been great. And they’ve certainly been clutch. But there have been significant stretches in the first two rounds where the Hawks looked — to borrow coach Joel Quenneville’s most denigrating phrase for a struggling player — just ordinary. Tired after the longest 16 months of their careers. Indifferent, even.

Think about how close they’ve come to a very different outcome this spring.

What if Corey Crawford doesn’t get a piece of his paddle on T.J. Oshie’s shot on a two-on-one in the third period of Game 5 in the first round, and the Hawks fall behind 3-2 in the series against the St. Louis Blues? What if Crawford doesn’t single-handedly keep the Hawks in Game 6 against the Blues during a second period in which the Blues outshot the Hawks 17-3? And what if Crawford (sensing a theme here?) doesn’t make brilliant stop after brilliant stop (and catch a couple of breaks on Wild whiffs along the way) in the second and third periods Tuesday in Game 6?

The Hawks have played 12 games in this postseason. Every one has been a one-goal game or tied at some point in the third period.

There are two ways to look at that. The positive way is that the Hawks are clutch. And while there may be no such thing as ‘‘clutch,’’ it’s hard to argue with a group that’s now 14-0 in Games 5 and 6 after a series has been tied 2-2. It’s hard to get around the fact that Kane has now ended three series in overtime in the last five years. It’s hard to brush off the fact that the Hawks have eight wins this postseason, and Jonathan Toews (four) and Kane (three) have combined for seven game-winning goals. And it’s pretty much impossible to doubt Crawford at this point.

‘‘It’s clearly a great group of guys,’’ Toews said.

The pessimistic way of looking at it is that the Hawks are a bit lucky to have survived this long, that they’re winning with brilliant goaltending and indefinable intangibles, either or both of which might be unsustainable over the full two-month grind of a Stanley Cup run.

Or maybe that’s just winning on sheer talent, that even when a young and hungry team such as the Wild come with everything they’ve got and control play for much of the series, it’s still not enough. The Hawks still get it done.

Of course, it really doesn’t matter how they won the first two rounds, just that they did. But to a man, the Hawks all have said the same thing — they need to be better moving forward. It only gets harder from here.

But whether they’re not at the top of their game, or whether they’re feeling the effects of a relentless year-plus of hockey, or whether the ice is tilted against them as it was Tuesday, the Hawks’ confidence never seems to waver.

‘‘You’re always going to have to face some moments where some people on the outside maybe doubt what you’re capable of as a team,’’ Toews said. ‘‘But in the locker room, you never have that doubt and you never let it creep in. . . . I think that’s what makes us a tough team to beat.’’

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus



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