By Adam Hoge-
UNITED CENTER (CBS) Now that’s more like it.
After two full days off and four practices to take their intensity to another level, the Blackhawks finally looked like they were playing playoff hockey Wednesday night as they dispatched the Red Wings 4-1 in Game 1 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals.
Despite beating the Minnesota Wild in just five games, Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville made it clear that he was not happy with his team’s play. He didn’t feel like they were playing at a playoff pace.
That changed Wednesday night.
“Yeah, much better from our prior series,” Quenneville said when asked if the Game 1 win over the Red Wings was the Blackhawks’ best effort of the playoffs so far. “I thought what we were talking about with our team game was in place. Had some pace, had some speed, zone time. I thought everybody contributed.”
At first glance Wednesday night, some may have been worried if the Blackhawks got Quenneville’s message as a somewhat sluggish first period ended in a 1-1 tie. The Hawks came out with a great first shift and Marian Hossa scored mid-way through the period on the power play, but the Wings countered less than two minutes later with a Damien Brunner goal and closed the period strong.
The five-day layoff may have contributed to even first period as Blackhawks winger Patrick Sharp admitted he didn’t feel great at the start and Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock said he didn’t know if the Blackhawks “had their legs in the first period.”
But they certainly had them in the second and third periods. Despite a scoreless second, the Hawks out-shot the Red Wings 17-5 and out-hit them 10-6 in the second period, after the Wings had a 21-9 advantage in hits after 20 minutes.
“I thought the second we got the pace we were looking for,” Quenneville said. “Our third was even better.”
It was better. Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard was really the only reason why the Hawks didn’t score in the second frame and it was only a matter of time before they found the back of the net. Johnny Oduya did so 8:02 into the third period and Marcus Kruger followed about three minutes later. Sharp added an empty-netter in the final minute to clinch the win.
“On the bench, in the locker room, I felt that we knew there was more of a sense of urgency today,” Sharp said. “We felt like we were skating better, playing more on the same page, not trying to create too much, just trying to work and create chances that way. I think we can still play better and hopefully we do that down the stretch.”
There was no question who the better team on the ice was Wednesday night, but getting a win in Game 1 was no certainty. The Blackhawks were at home for days while the Red Wings were gaining momentum with Game 6 and 7 wins over the Anaheim Ducks.
“This is huge, the way we start with Game 1,” Hossa said. “We knew they played unreal against Anaheim in the first series, they finished real strong and you know, we were sitting here. So you got to kind of question before the game which is better, but I felt like we had a strong first shift and we built on that.”
It turns out the Blackhawks’ situation was better. Babcock admitted the back-and-forth travel to the West Coast took a toll on his team.
“I wasn’t surprised when I saw us today,” he said.
Babcock actually figured the series would start on Tuesday night, but the Wings appeared to run out of gas even with the extra day. The good news for Detroit is that there is another extra day built into the schedule before Saturday’s Game 2.
“With the way the series is setup, we have no reason not to be very good in the next game,” Babcock.
But very good might not be good enough against this Blackhawks team, which of course, Quenneville thinks can still improve.
“Certainly, I still think we are going to have to be better as we go along here,” the Blackhawks head coach said.
If that happens, this series might not go very long.
For more Blackhawks coverage throughout the playoffs, follow Adam on Twitter (@AdamHoge).