Friday, June 4, 2010

Hawks make run to Lord Stanley's Cup

Since the last time this column has been published, we have seen the transformation of the Chicago Blackhawks from also-rans in the NHL to at least championship contenders made almost complete.

The Flyers so far have provided all of the competition the Hawks can handle, fighting to a 6-5 Chicago win in Game 1 last Saturday and a 2-1 Hawks win Monday night before finally claiming a 4-3 win in overtime in Game 3 Wednesday. They have scrapped, beaten and taken advantage of some generous calls by the officials to stay in contention in this series to the highly favored Blackhawks.

So what do the Hawks do for Game 4 in tough Philadelphia and bring it back to the United Center for a possible clincher Sunday night in front of the home fans?

First, goaltender Antti Niemi needs to get his groove back. Niemi was simply awesome during the conference finals against San Jose, allowing no more than two goals in any one game against the top-seeded Sharks as the Blackhawks swept the series. He lost it in Game 1 against the Flyers, but fortunately was backed up by a charging Hawks offense. He got it back in Game 2, only allowing one goal on 33 shots in the Hawks' win, only to lose it at the crucial time on some badly timed goals allowed Wednesday in Philly. He will need to do much better if the Hawks are to lengthen their lead in the series and not suffer the same fate the Bruins did surrendering a 3-0 lead in the Eastern Conference semis against these same Flyers.

Second, the top line of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp will need to step it up. Toews has been pretty quiet during the finals, mainly because of the defense of Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger. Fortunately, guys like Kris Versteeg and Dustin Byfuglien have covered him in getting some key goals at the right times. Toews is due, especially if Pronger does something stupid and either spends too much time in the penalty box or simply gets thrown out of the game.

Finally, the Hawks could get a boost if Andrew Ladd comes back into the lineup. Ladd's been gone since getting hurt in Game 4 of the conference finals.

Either way, Game 4 is a must-win for the Hawks. Lose it, and they're feeling the pressure as the series is tied up going back to Chicago. Win it, and Sunday could be the greatest day for hockey in Chicago in a long time.

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