ST. PAUL, Minn. – Nobody told 20-year-old Brandon Saad about the Blackhawks’ no-panic culture when he earned a roster spot this winter as a green-as-grass rookie.
Saad didn’t need to hear the details. After all, he had two eyes and a brain.
“I’ve never been a part of a team like this,” Saad said Tuesday at Minnesota’s Xcel Energy Center.
Enjoy the ride, kid. This could last for a while.
The Hawks knocked off a desperate opponent in front of a hostile crowd, beating the Minnesota Wild, 3-0, in Game 4 of the Western Conference quarterfinals. The hard-earned victory gave the Hawks a decisive 3-1 series lead entering Game 5 on Thursday, when the Hawks could advance with a win.
“Our team game today had much more bite to it,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “[We] had a lot more purpose in our game and our speed. In all zones, we had a purpose, and it was much more efficient.”
Out east, the top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins are trying their best not to hyperventilate (or whatever worried Penguins do). They’re tied, 2-2, in their series against the No. 8 seed New York Islanders, and an abrupt ending to their terrific season now seems as likely as a run to the Stanley Cup.
No such worries exist with the Hawks, who reasserted themselves with a lively rebound effort. Sure, some luck was involved. That’s typically the case when things go well.
Wild goaltender Josh Harding injured his left leg late in the first period when Hawks captain Jonathan Toews drove to the net and crashed into the goaltender. Harding looked uncomfortable after the hit, and he was replaced before the start of the second period by third-string goaltender Darcy Kuemper, who was active because top option Niklas Backstrom remained out with a lower-body injury.
To say Kuemper had a case of the jitters would be like saying Bill Gates has a case of the pennies. Patrick Sharp, who already had scored the game’s first goal on a deflection in the first period, greeted Kuemper with a long-distance shot from the left side. It was a simple practice test, but it might as well have been the Minnesota bar exam, because Kuemper was not prepared for the moment.
According to the NHL, Sharp’s wrist shot traveled 56 feet before crossing the goal line. Maybe next time, Sharp should try to shoot and score from the Mall of America.
Yet it would be wrong to dismiss the Hawks’ Game 4 win as no big deal because most of it came against the Wild’s rent-a-goaltender.
Pressure is different in the playoffs, and the Hawks knew they were in a tight spot against a club with nothing to lose and 19,378 fans with everything to drink.
If the playoffs are all about responding to adversity, the Hawks look to be in good shape. Hawks defenseman Nick Leddy marveled at his team’s resiliency from January until now.
“It’s pretty amazing how we just stick to our game plan whether or not things are going our way,” Leddy said. “We keep sticking to that game plan, and it’s really worked out for us.”
Only twice during the regular season did the Hawks lose back-to-back games in regulation time. Those included a pair of losses March 8 and March 10 against Colorado and Edmonton, along with a pair of losses March 20 and March 25 against Anaheim and the Los Angeles Kings.
Each time, the Hawks responded before a three-game losing streak was born.
Credit the no-panic culture, which starts with Captain Toews and filters through the room.
“There are teams I’ve been on where you get in slumps or you’re playing bad, and it continues like that,” said Saad, who was a top prospect in the Ontario Hockey League when the Hawks drafted him in 2011. “This team, with the different dynamics we have, we do have that ability to bounce back.
“We’re never too low. We’re never too high. That’s something we’ve done a good job of this year, and it shows in our record.”
That record – at least, the only one that really matters – is 3-1.
• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @tcmusick.