There was a time, before he was sentenced to do all of his press availabilities at a podium, when Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville actually seemed to enjoy talking about hockey with reporters. This was a long-ago era, when interviews resembled conversations, and involved something more than a steady stream of cliches.
Watch: Blackhawks 4, Kings 3 (2OT)
But a little bit of the old Quenneville surfaced Saturday after his Blackhawks advanced to their second Stanley Cup final in four years.
Palpable, visible excitement has a way of bringing out the old instincts, even for Quenneville, who isn’t given to lavish overstatement. Instead, his assessment of the Blackhawks’ journey to this point in the playoffs is couched in realism.
It has been an uneven process. Both his team and the Boston Bruins, Chicago’s opponents in the first Original Six Stanley Cup final since 1979, made great, improbable escapes to get here.
The Bruins could have been gone in the opening round, down 4-1 in the seventh and deciding game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, before rallying to win the series. The Blackhawks looked cooked in the second round after falling behind 3-1 against the Detroit Red Wings, only to win three elimination games in a row.
Yes, they showed character and resilience to emerge victorious, but it was a hard slog to get from the point of elimination to four victories away from another championship. Quenneville called it as “an interesting playoffs” that included “an ordinary start” against the Minnesota Wild, and the need to get off “the ropes” for three games against Detroit.
“I thought we’ve gotten better as we’ve gone along,” Quenneville said. “Finding a way was exactly what we were looking for.”
More than anything, the ability to find a way is the product of experience. The year the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup – 2010 – they barely scraped past the Nashville Predators in the opening round.
The year the Bruins won – 2011 – they barely squeaked past Montreal in the opening round. That’s one thing the past can teach you. You stay within your limits and keep pushing until the end because you never know when the tide can turn.
“It’s a very fine line,” Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. “Coming into the playoffs, being the Presidents’ Trophy winner, I think that puts a lot of pressure on your team. Everyone expects you to cruise all the way there.
“There’s no such thing as cruising to the Stanley Cup final. The guys in this room that were there in 2010 and have been there since understand that. We know what it takes. We know what we have to do to win these important games. Everyone’s setting aside their personal agendas for that. There’s no other way to do it.
“We have the ability, the talent, but most of all, we’re hungry to get back to where we were in 2010. In the meantime, we definitely went through some tough times and some trials. That’s all part of it.”
The toughest times and trials may have been endured by Toews’s long-time teammate, Patrick Kane, the Blackhawks’ leading scorer in the regular season with 55 points in 47 games. Kane had struggled in the first three games of the Western Conference final against the Los Angeles Kings, before coming alive with four goals in the final two games, including a hat trick Saturday.
It is still sometimes hard to know what to make of Kane. He remains a charming kid. The theory this year was that he grew and matured as a player, and all of the antics that made him an Internet sensation – usually involving a party – were in the past, and there is a new gravitas about him.
On the surface, it doesn’t seem as if much has changed. The one thing you can say about him is that he is willing to face the music, if answering questions from a swarm of reporters is facing the music.
The other day, in the midst of the Duncan Keith suspension kerfuffle, the secondary story was Kane’s scoring slump, and wasn’t it about time that he started contributing more? Kane then scored a fluke goal pivotal to the fifth-game victory, and typical of scorers, used the confidence he gained there to score the first, the go-ahead and the winning goals against the Kings Saturday night.
Quenneville remembered how Kane scored the goal that won the championship three years ago, in OT, against the Philadelphia Flyers.
“Top players, they want to be great all the time,” Quenneville said. “Finding a way to be great in the tight checking that many teams have in our league, I commend him on two outstanding games.”
It is hard to ask for more from Kane than what he delivered, especially when the alternative for Chicago was travelling back to Los Angeles for a possible sixth game, and dipping further into their depleting energy reserves while Boston could sit back comfortably to watch and recover. If Chicago ends up winning the Stanley Cup, it could well be that the timing of the win – and getting it done expeditiously, in five games – may be the single biggest factor in the end result.