Once unbeatable, the pressure is on Blackhawks to prove their playoff pedigree

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

DETROIT — Back when the Chicago Blackhawks were unbeatable, it was easy to get caught up in the streak and the comparisons and the Stanley Cup dreams. They couldn’t lose, at least in regulation. They looked like a complete team, with top-end talent, depth and goaltending. They looked like they did in 2009-10, when they won it all.

But it was early in the regular season, and there was caution.

“Is it the same team?” said San Jose Sharks forward Adam Burish, a member of the 2010 champions, the night the Blackhawks set an NHL record by earning points in their first 17 games. “You’ll have to wait till the playoffs start, and we’ll see.”

We’ll see now.

The Blackhawks face a 2-1 deficit in their second-round series with the Detroit Red Wings. They have lost two straight. They are being outplayed from their top-end talent to their depth to their goaltending. They lost their composure at the end of Game 3 in the sauna that was Joe Louis Arena.

If they are like the 2010 team, this will be a typical bump on the way to the Cup. The Blackhawks faced 1-0 and 2-1 deficits in the first round against the Nashville Predators that year, then won three straight. They faced a 1-0 deficit in the second round against the Vancouver Canucks, then won the series in six. After sweeping the Sharks in the Western Conference final, they faced a 2-2 tie in the Cup final against the Philadelphia Flyers, then won the next two, Patrick Kane sneaking that puck into the net to clinch it.

[Related: Jonathan Toews still looking for first goal of 2013 NHL playoffs]

Rarely does a team blow through the playoffs like the Los Angeles Kings did last year, when they took 3-0 leads in all four series and went as deep as Game 6 only once, finishing an astonishing 16-4. And that run came after plenty of adversity during the regular season. Those Kings struggled to score, fired their coach, added a star player and made the playoffs as an eighth seed. These Blackhawks went their first 24 games without a regulation loss – half the lockout-shortened season – and finished 36-7-5, winning the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top regular-season team.

“I think it’s good for us,” said defenseman Duncan Keith. “It’s good that we’ve got to work here. I think it’s going to make us better.”

It had better. Because adversity didn’t make the Blackhawks better enough in 2011, when they rallied from a 3-0 deficit in the first round against the Canucks, only to lose Game 7 in overtime. And it certainly didn’t make them better enough last year, when they fell into 1-0 and 3-1 deficits in the first round against the Phoenix Coyotes and succumbed in six games.

Look, the 2013 Blackhawks were never going to be the 2010 Blackhawks. The same head coach is here – Joel Quenneville. The same core is still here – Kane, Keith, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, David Bolland, Brent Seabrook. But the supporting cast was cut loose in the Great Salary Cap Purge, and though the new one is undoubtedly the best the ’Hawks have had since, it’s undoubtedly different, too.

The Blackhawks looked balanced in the first round. Kane and Toews didn’t score, but it didn’t matter. They still got nine goals from the old core (five from Sharp, three from Hossa, one from Keith) and eight from their new supporting cast (three from Bryan Bickell, two from Michael Frolik, one each from Johnny Oduya, Marcus Kruger and Andrew Shaw). Corey Crawford was solid in goal. They eliminated the Minnesota Wild in five games.

But the Wild was an eighth seed that struggled down the stretch, lost its starting goaltender to injury in warmups before Game 1 and had its backup goalie suffer an injury, too.

And though the Wings are a seventh seed, they found their game down the stretch, winning their last four games to get in, and they upset the second-seeded Anaheim Ducks in the first round in seven games. They have pride. They have passion. They have no pressure. They still have top-end talent like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, their youngsters are growing before our eyes, and Jimmy Howard is playing like an all-star in goal.

[Watch: Sharks ride winning momentum back to L.A.]

The Wings are better than they were in Game 1, when they ran out of gas after all those games and all that travel in the first round and lost, 4-1. They are better than they were a week ago, two weeks ago, three weeks ago. They certainly are better than they were when they failed to beat the Blackhawks in four tries in the regular season – and three of those four games were close. There was a 7-1 blowout, an overtime and two shootouts.

“It seems like they have a good lineup right now,” Kane said. “It seems like they figured out some of their lines and different things. So they’re playing pretty strong. I’m sure they’re happy with the way they’re playing.”

The Blackhawks cannot be happy with the way they’re playing after back-to-back 4-1 and 3-1 losses. Toews has zero goals and only three points in the playoffs, and it matters now because no one else is filling the void. Kane had their only goal in each of the past two games. The rest of the old core was blanked. So was their new supporting cast. Crawford was outplayed by Howard. Most alarming of all, the Blackhawks were hit and outworked too often.

Burish said something else back when the Blackhawks were unbeatable. He praised their skill and speed and depth. But in pointing out the 2013 Blackhawks were “probably a more skilled team” than the 2010 Blackhawks, he raised another issue – grit.

“When you get to a playoff series, it’s grinding,” he said then. “It’s hard.”

It’s grinding now. It’s hard now. And you can focus on whatever area you want – the baffling power play, the struggling Toews, the suddenly overmatched third line, Crawford – but the bottom line is the Blackhawks should be the better team. They should come back to win and move on.

To prove it, to do it, someone, anyone, needs to make the difference when it matters most. That’s what champions do.

“We’ve been in worse situations than this, so we’re not feeling sorry for ourselves,” Toews said. “We’re not thinking any negative thoughts. Stay with it. That’s what it takes to win playoff series and to win championships. You go through moments like this. It’s not going to faze us in the least.”

We’ll see. Now.

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