By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) Why did the Blackhawks find themselves down 3-1 after four games against the Detroit Red Wings? Because they went through the motions in Game 2 at the United Center.
It’s one thing to lose a hard-fought battle in overtime at home, it’s another thing to get taken apart in a 4-1 defeat.
That game gave the Red Wings confidence that they could win at home. Certainly the Blackhawks effort was much better in Games 3 and 4 at the Joe, but it wasn’t desperate enough to get them a victory.
That’s where leadership took over. There’s a fine edge between leadership and panic and the Blackhawks certainly have teetered while walking that tight rope.
But they responded with pressure-packed victories in Games 5 and 6.
Maintaining that edge in Game 7 at the United Center won’t be easy but it is certainly doable. The most difficult of the three-game assignment to take back the series from Detroit was the sixth game.
The Blackhawks had much to overcome in that game, and perhaps head coach Joel Quenneville had the biggest challenge.
He had to prepare his team to play a huge game on the road and he had to make sure confidence was high.
We’re not talking about the bravado that can be measured in brave and emotional words spoken to the media; we’re talking about true belief that comes with knowing that they were better than their opponents.
Quenneville did his part and so did Jonathan Toews.
But the most difficult part of Quenneville’s job was matching wits with Mike Babcock. Widely acknowledge as one of the best coaches in the NHL, Quenneville got the better of his opposite number Monday night.
It started early as Quenneville showed he was not going to let Babcock’s matchups dictate the outcome. After Toews took the opening faceoff from Henrik Zetterberg, he skated to the Blackhawks bench so he didn’t have to get free from the Detroit center’s defensive hooks.
The Blackhawks were sharp early and they got paid for their intensity with a Marian Hossa power play goal.
Quenneville’s guys were performing while Babcock’s were sitting back and taking it. Babcock didn’t put up with it for long.
He sounded the clarion call that the Red Wings were playing soft. They weren’t skating hard enough and they weren’t making decisive plays when they got to the puck.
NBC’s Pierre McGuire, standing between the two benches, let us know that Babcock’s message was delivered and received. The Red Wings seemed to take over the game in the last seven minutes of the first period and the second period.
Detroit, with a 2-1 lead after two after Corey Crawford gave up a butter-soft goal in the middle period, had taken control of the game.
The Blackhawks, the best team in hockey throughout the season, went out and proved they were just that in the third period.
Quenneville’s message was delivered through Duncan Keith and Toews, who made emotional mini-speeches to their teammates when it looked like 20 minutes remained in the season.
Quenneville was not even in the room, but his players were following the coach’s lead in that they were going to find a way to win the game.
When Michal Handzus found himself alone in front of Jimmy Howard with the puck on his stick in the first minute of the final period, he simply took the time and space he had and picked the far corner.
Bryan Bickell scored the go-ahead goal a few minutes later after Hossa and Toews won a board battle. Bickell was in front of the net and he refused to yield his piece of prime real estate. When Toews passed the puck to Bickell, he secured it and wrapped it past Howard.
The clinching move by Michael Frolik on the penalty shot was the stuff of dreams.
The Blackhawks survived a last-minute Detroit goal and held on and will play a seventh game at home.
Quenneville had his team prepared for Game 6 and he will get his team to a fever pitch for game 7. No Blackhawks team has lost a game 7 at home since the 1971 team was beaten in the Stanley Cup Finals by Henri Richard and the Montreal Canadiens.
Game 7 means the Blackhawks have the opportunity they need to rescue this still-magical season.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.