Everyone knows the situation: game seven of the semifinals against the Detroit Red Wings. The goal? Completing a comeback from a three games to one deficit to eliminate the storied rivals from the Western Conference playoffs for the last time.
At this point, everyone expects the Blackhawks to put the finishing touches on this series. The problem with that is Chicagoans already posses an inconveniently sporadic sports memory. While the Blackhawks should show up at the United Center ready to play their best hockey of the series, tonight's decisive game will surely provide quite the thrill ride, testing the fortitude of stomachs across Chicago and Detroit.
The Blackhawks have won two games in a row, to force this game seven, but that does not mean that we must forget about those games. While game five felt well in-hand for the duration of the play, game six had Haws fans whirling.
Let us recall:
Winning 1-0: "We've got this game!"
Tied 1-1: "This is going to be a battle."
Losing 2-1: "Oh crap."
[Insert Jimmy Howard's great saves, and sounds of doubt and frustration here.]
Tied 2-2: "Handzuuuuus! Now please don't give up another goal."
Winning 3-2: [Stunned elation, followed by....] "Ahhhhhh, yes!"
Winning 4-2: "Ba-nana-na nana-na nana-nanana!"
Winning 4-3 with a minute left: "Oh... no way. They can't..."
Leading up to game six, I claimed it was the most important game the Blackhawks had played since the Stanley Cup -clinching victory in game six in Philadelphia of 2010. Of course, that changes with today's game, but the point is the Blackhawks did what we all knew they could do; they overcame dire in-game situations and played their best game in three seasons, forcing game seven.
After looking dead four games into this series, the Blackhawks seemed to have finally "flipped the switch," and appear to be poised and determined to finish the Detroit Red Wings, and send them packing out of the playoffs and the Western Conference, once and for all. The figurative torch will have been officially passed from the Red Wings dominance in recent history, to the Blackhawks who will go on in search of capturing their second Stanley Cup in four seasons.
We all expect it, but it is not a done deal yet.
The two obvious truths of this series against Detroit are: the Red Wings are a better team than many of us thought they could be, and the Blackhawks were simply not prepared to deal with it at significant points of certain games. I believe the Blackhawks are prepared for anything Detroit can or will do now; Mike Babcock is out of adjustments, or at least any that his team is capable of making at this point.
However, I did not expect the Blackhawks to go down 2-1 in game six, let alone 3-1 in the series, and I certainly did not expect Jimmy Howard to play as well as he has, even in his losses. Likewise, we all remember the almost-comeback against the Vancouver Canucks two playoffs ago. A devastating OT turnover ended the Blackhawks' chances at repeating as champs. After forcing a game seven when being down 3-0 in the series, everyone in town expected the Hawks to finish it off.
I expect this to be a fantastic evening for the Blackhawks, but for good or ill, the team will make history tonight.
Sometime this evening, Blackhawks fans will either be ravishing in the glory of the first Hawks team to comeback and win from a three games to one deficit in a playoff series, or will be mourning one of the few teams to ever start a season so strong and not make the Stanley Cup finals.
This has been a fantastic playoff series, and a brilliant showcase of the sport at its height of drama and display: a fitting tribute to the end of the greatest rivalry in the NHL. Expect all of that drama, the decades of history, and a vivid intensity all compounded into each and every shift tonight.
This is going to be fun, its just a matter of how much.