"Getting hot at the right time" -- This has been a phrase used in excess over the past quarter-century to describe one of the intangibles that all championship teams have possessed. Every TV and radio color man from Tim McCarver to Troy Aikman has described their respective sport's post-season as requiring the ability to "get hot at the right time".
After fourteen NHL playoff games, it appears the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks finally possess this vital characteristic, and leading the team in "being hot NOW" is goalie Antti Niemi.
Tuesday's Western Conference Finals game against the San Jose Sharks was nothing short of dominant for the Blackhawks. Hawks players and coaches referred to Tuesday night's Game 2 as an almost must-win situation. With the Hawks possessing a one-game lead in the best-of-seven series, it was expected that the Sharks would be at full force, leaving everything they collectively had on the ice.
They may have done that -- but it didn't matter.
Game 2 in San Jose was nothing short of phenomenal hockey. The San Jose Sharks skated fast, handled the puck well, and created good scoring opportunities for most of the night. The Sharks were effective on the powerplay, and limited the Hawks to just 22 shots. Quite simply, the Sharks played winning hockey. The only problem for the Sharks was that the Blackhawks played their best hockey too.
For the majority of Tuesday night's game, both teams played fast-paced, hard-hitting, aggressive hockey. Beyond the 4-2 score, Tuesday night's game was an exhibition of Blackhawks hockey at its best. The Hawks skated faster, hit harder, and were simply more aggressive than their Western Conference leading opponents.
Antti Niemi was once again spectacular in net, surrendering two goals to Sharks great Patrick Marleau. Marleau's first goal was on a Sharks powerplay, and in true sniper-like fashion, while his second goal game with less than four minutes remaining in the game on an inadvertent kick by Hawks' defenseman Duncan Keith . Outside of Marleau, Niemi denied every other Shark's scoring opportunity.
Meanwhile, the Hawks were scoring in true Blackhawks fashion, using their speed and superb passing game to gain space, create scoring opportunities, and confuse Sharks' goalie Evgeni Nabokov for most of the game. Marian Hossa and Andrew Ladd spent most of the night creating havoc for the Sharks and opportunities for the Hawks, and Jonathan Toews was masterful around the front of the net.
"Getting hot at the right time" seems to be the one intangible the Hawks have been missing throughout the first two rounds of the NHL playoffs. One Tuesday night, the Hawks seemingly found that attribute.
In the beginning of the 2009-10 NHL season, the Blackhawks were simply "that good". Initially, they were the front-runner to win the Western Conference and possibly the Stanley Cup. But as the season drove on, and injuries, inconsistent play, and goaltending issues came to the forefront, the Hawks position as conference favorites began to dwindle. They entered the 2010 post-season regarded as significantly less of a threat than experts initially believed.
With Tuesday's win in San Jose, the Hawks proved they truly are the force they were once thought to be. And the scariest part of the equation for the remaining NHL playoff contenders and hockey "experts" alike, is that in addition to being once again "that good", they now appear to be "getting hot at the right time".