CHICAGO -- The Chicago Blackhawks don't sound panicked in the Stanley Cup Final, something the team's fan base could probably learn something from. The contrast in tone between social media and the team's locker room after a Game 3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday night was striking. Doom and gloom, they're saying online, but from the vantage point inside the United Center, this is still a series firmly within the Blackhawks' grasp.
"It's frustrating. A lot of the things we did today gave us the feeling we were going to come out on top with the effort that we gave," captain Jonathan Toews said following the 3-2 loss. "Just a couple little bad habits that ended up hurting us."
Maybe it would be harder to buy from a different team, a worse team, but the Blackhawks' mild-mannered confidence is never unbelievable anymore. A thirdFinal in six years will do that to you. The system, based on the most important means of evaluation, works, even if it didn't Monday.
For the third straight game against Tampa Bay, it was a series of small bounces and sticks at just the wrong (or right) angles that decided the results. The Hawks and Bolts have proven to be legitimate challengers to one another, each side too good to let the other one pull away, and now they're battling in a series too close to predict. The only things that seem certain are the Blackhawks' unflappable composure and an opponent intent at beating them at their own game.
"This game could’ve been similar to the way we stole Game 1 from them," Toews said. "We feel like we had a lot of chances, especially early in the game. Late in the game we gave up those odd-man rushes we’ve been talking about that end up in the back of our net."
Some of those missed early opportunities came back to haunt the Blackhawks in Game 3 once the late mistakes arose. The team missed two possible open nets in the first period, and only got one power play goal out of an extended sequence that saw the Lightning fighting off from their heels for several minutes. Tampa Bay goaltender Ben Bishop wasn't even at his best -- some kind of injury clearly was limiting the 28-year-old as he tried to move around the crease -- yet he stopped 36 of 38 shots. Then the team found itself running into those "bad habits" that Toews had referred to.
The Lightning's game-winning goal resulted from some sloppy neutral zone play creating a mismatch entering the offensive zone. That came after Tampa Bay had responded to a Brandon Saad goal so quickly the crowd had not even stopped celebrating yet. The habit of letting opponents reciprocate after scoring -- it took 13 seconds Monday -- is something the team is aware of but can't seem to shake.
"They’re trying to come out and have a strong shift after the goal. I know it has happened a lot to us after a goal and we’ve addressed it. Sometimes that’s just hockey," center Brad Richards said in the locker room.
That final line seems to sum up the team's attitude to this game, all things considered. The processes behind what the Blackhawks have done all season remain intact, and to this team, there's nothing more important than sticking to their guns. It's how they got through a grueling Western Conference Final against the Anaheim Ducks, and now they can't stray with just a few games left in the playoffs. Moving on from disappointing games like this one is part of how a great team operates.
"It is what it is. What are you gonna do? Get frustrated and stop working when things don't go your way? That's not how you get to this point," Toews said.
The bounces haven't gone Chicago's way yet, but this team has always been about running the math, driving possession and waiting for the good times to arrive. Joel Quenneville's postgame presser lasted all of 90 seconds. There's not much to talk about anymore, just two good teams who are constantly sorting each other out game after game, minute after minute. For the Hawks, a 2-1 series deficit is just the latest obstacle to overcome, nothing to overreact to when the team has already gotten this far.
The series is still close. Game 4 is in just a couple days. Let's try to follow the team's direction and remember winning a Stanley Cup is never a sprint, always a marathon. And nobody should forget the Blackhawks' other habit: making things hard before coming out on top.