First things first; its okay. Breathe. Brent Seabrook scored in overtime, the Blackhawks completed their first ever comeback from a 3-1 playoff series deficit, and now advance to the Western Conference Finals.
Game one against the Los Angeles Kings is less then 48 hours away, with puck-drop coming at 4pm Saturday afternoon. The Blackhawks are ready, but how much do you know about the new foe?
The Kings won the Stanley Cup last year, in large part due to the play of goalie Jonathan Quick. The worst news for the Blackhawks is that he has picked up right where he left off.
Quick leads all goaltenders in the playoffs with a .948 save percentage and three shutouts. Stopping 20 of the 382 shots he has faced, Quick has posted a 1.50 goals against average per game. This is a great goalie playing at the peak of his ability at the perfect time of the year for his team. He did it last year, and he has done a brilliant job of continuing his elite play so far in this year's playoffs.
Furthermore, the Kings pose a physical challenge that the Blackhawks have not faced thus far in the playoffs.
While the Red Wings series was a physical one, neither they nor the Hawks can compete with the thorough physicality the Kings bring to the ice. L.A.'s Dustin Brown has 57 hits in the playoffs, good for third highest in the NHL. It does not stop there.
Trevor Lewis has 43 hits, Dustin Penner and Colin Fraser 38 a piece, and Dwight King has 36 himself. Brent Seabrook and Bryan Bickell are tied for the Blackhawks' team lead in the playoffs with 35 hits each. Three more Kings have a higher hit total than the next Hawk on the list; Andrew Shaw with 29.
To recap: of the ten players with the highest hit totals in this upcoming series, eight of them play for L.A. On top of that, the Blackhawks' two leaders in hits only have 13 more between the two of them than the King's sole hit-leader.
L.A. is going to test the Blackhawks and come at them at the hard. Chicago skaters will have a hard time holding onto the puck when they are laying flat on the ice- or at least that is going to be the mindset of the Kings. This will be a new, and formidable, challenge for the Blackhawks, but how about a little good news?
Of those eight L.A. hit-leaders, three of them have a negative plus/minus rating. One would think that the Blackhawks have a better chance of making the Kings pay for any overly-aggressive mistakes than any team the Kings have faced so far. To that point, the Blackhawks are notably faster than L.A., and possess better skaters as well. The Kings do not want to skate with the Hawks, just like the Hawks do not want to try out-hitting the Kings.
This series will come down to which team can impose its will upon the other.
Despite the elite play of Jonathan Quick, Corey Crawford has arguably been the most consistent player for the Blackhawks in the playoffs. Crawdaddy's 1.70 goals against average is next best in the NHL behind Quick's 1.50, and his .938 save percentage is knocking on the door of the .948 boasted by Quick. While the Hawks goalie still has more to prove than Quick, thus far Crawford has been playing at the top of his game as well, and can be a huge part of the Blackhawks' potential success in this series.
Then, of course, there is recent history. The Blackhawks overcame as much adversity as possible in the Red Wings series: down three games to one, trailing on the road in the third period of an elimination game six, and "winning" game seven in regulation before having to win it again in OT.
To assume that the Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Kings will be any easier is foolish, but unless the Hawks are to overcome a three games to none deficit, or become riddled by untimely injuries, this series cannot be any harder- just differently hard.
New challenges await the Hawks; likely more physical challenges than the road they have already traveled. This series is going to be unique to itself, and the Blackhawks will have their hands full taking on the defending Stanley Cup champs.
However, the fact that coach Quenneville and the leaders on this team were able to look past the disallowed Hjalmarsson goal last night, and focus the team on finishing the Red Wings off once and for all, shows a resolve that the Blackhawks have not put on display since game five of the opening round in the 2010 playoffs against Nashville.
"If Jimmy Howard looked so good in the last series, what are the Hawks gonna do against Quick?"
"If the Hawks were muscled-around by the Red Wings, how can they withstand the Kings?"
"Can the Hawks really out-skate the Kings and win with a puck-possession mentality?"
Hockey is inherently random, especially at playoff time. Anything can always happen. This Blackhawks team, however, can overcome anything.
The time has come to start expecting just that.