Maybe the Playoffs Aren't That Fun After All (Hunger Strike)
Once it became apparent that this iteration of the Chicago Blackhawks was pretty damn good, the regular season turned into a waiting game. One can only watch the Hawks outclass the Oilers, Avalanche, and Predators of the league so many times before it becomes more of a chore than appointment viewing.
Watching Minnesota score the first goal in game one, combined with obsessive Twitter watching, I wondered if maybe the dog days of a successful regular season weren't so bad. That’s not to say that the NHL playoffs aren't an unbelievable spectacle. But it didn't take long to feel that our relationship with them is more akin to Stockholm Syndrome than anything symbiotic. The NHL playoffs are a vehicle for our impotent rage, white-knuckle fear, arrogant vitriol, and crippling shame.
With a flick of unfortunately named dapper gent Cal Clutterbuck’s wrist every single Blackhawks fan’s fears rushed out of their troubled minds, onto their keyboards, and into the world wide web. Corey Crawford can’t handle the playoffs. The Hawks look flat out of the gate. They need more “effort” and “jump” and “zazz” and “verve”. Maybe they were so in love with their own reflection staring back at them in the mushy United Center ice that they forgot how to even play the game.
All of these saggy, awful opinions are of course wrong. Minnesota is a team of human beings and they want to try to win just like the Blackhawks. So when the Hawks don’t appear to be running circles around their opponent or giving up shots on goal or even actual goals it’s not because the Hawks aren't trying their gosh darn hardest. It’s not because they don’t care. It’s not because they’re thinking about how neat that President’s Trophy was. It’s because hockey is a competition where two teams are trying to win.
It’s not about being hungry nor is it about want. It’s a competition. Both teams have enough impetus to do their best. Their families and friends are watching. Strangers are watching. They get to make a lot of money way longer if they perform well. I saw the comment on Sunday that the Minnesota checking was designed to break the Blackhawks’ collective will. Is this something adults really think happens? Do they think pro hockey players take a body check and just say ‘welp, fuck it I'm done get me a Lunchables and some pajamas what’s on the TV?’
Somehow the worn out trope known in the Meatball Kingdom as “The President’s Trophy Curse” has led fans of one of the best teams in the NHL (that’s the Hawks) to think they have some sort of handicap to overcome. As if having the best record and holding home ice advantage is somehow a bad thing. Of course it doesn't guarantee a championship but all of the things that come with the trophy are beneficial. So when Crawford let in that first goal all of the issues, manufactured or real, came spilling out of Hawk fan heads until Marian Hossa finally tied it up and allowed everyone to take a breath.
But that’s just it: until that goal didn't everyone start to think about the Phoenix series and Mike Smith? People don’t want to remember this but the Hawks were the better team in that series. They were stymied by actor/goaltender Smith but generally carried the play. In a short sample size such as a playoff series these things are magnified. In the regular season the offense can appear impotent for a four or five game stretch. But in May? That’s the end of our Cup dreams. That the Hawks lost that series didn't change Stan Bowman’s opinion of his team or his core - he knew they were still very good and supplemented the roster instead of blowing it up. Look where they are now.
When someone watches a game they see what they want to see. They see Duncan Keith’s one or two fuck ups because they’re waiting for them to happen. They see Jonathan Toews hustle to win a board battle because that’s what they expect him to do. They see Viktor Stalberg skate real fast and fail to finish an “easy” scoring chance. Every player has his thing, good or bad.
What might help us get through these difficult games a little easier is knowing that when the Blackhawks are outshooting their opponent that means they’re carrying the play. That means they have more opportunities to score. Certainly a hot opposing goaltender can stand in the way of those odds and that would be unfortunate. But that’s not the rule. If the next 14 Blackhawks games are lopsided victories I would be just as happy as the rest of you but that’s as likely as a St. Louis restaurant getting a Michelin star.
As much fun as games like the first of this series seem before they happen; they’re really quite agonizing to sit through. Not just because any weird bounce can mean defeat but because as fans we create deficiencies that don’t necessarily exist. I saw people saying that the Hawks came out “just like they had feared they would.” Well sure - that’s because no one “fears” that their favorite team is going to win by ten goals.
While the Hawks chased a one goal deficit in games one and three, fans' assholes were so tight you couldn't drive a pin through them with a sledgehammer. The Hawks have been able to erase one goal deficits and then some with relative ease all season. Why should that change now? Because it’s the playoffs? What magical formula do the Wild have access to that the Blackhawks don’t? The way it's being written in local rags it literally sounds like Mike Yeo is caging and starving his players between games while the Blackhawks are gnawing on comically oversized legs of mutton.
So if the Blackhawks come out slow in game four and look “flat” or “lifeless”, save your breath. Look at the shot totals. Watch to see which team is carrying the puck and getting the majority of the scoring chances. If Josh Harding plays the whole series like he has we may have to tip our caps. I’d be willing to bet there won’t be another game in this series that the Blackhawks get outshot. The only way that has a chance of happening is if the Hawks suddenly form a conga line to the penalty box which, once again, isn't something this team does.
Your 2013 Chicago Blackhawks are a really, really good team. They deserve to be the top seed. They deserve home ice. They should beat every single team they face in a seven game series because they are as good or better than all of them. As hard as it is for all of us, let’s try to enjoy what’s left of this postseason whether it’s this round or three more. And save the bullshit narratives for football season. Let’s go Hawks.