CHICAGO – The Blackhawks have enjoyed living out of a suitcase. What a road trip they had, finishing off Vancouver in the second round and then beating San Jose twice on the Sharks’ home ice for a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference finals.
Can they duplicate their stellar play at home, where they are just 3-3 in the post-season, compared to 7-1 on the road? Game 3 is Friday night at the United Center.
“There’s a lot of expectations from family and friends, people want to be a part of this whole thing. When you’re on the road, it’s just you and the guys. In that way, it’s a little bit easier,” Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said Wednesday, comparing home and away.
“But no one’s looking at that as an excuse. Like I said before, we can be happy about the last two games we played on the road because that’s big. It’s a huge disadvantage to play in someone else’s building, especially in San Jose, with the noise in that building. But I think we can all forget about that and really get excited about what we can do and how good we can play in our own building.”
The Blackhawks have attributed their success away from home to bonding, hanging out together off the ice, going to dinner, playing video games and then taking a simplified approach once they hit the rink.
During the regular season, they had a franchise-record 23 wins on the road and their 29 home victories were one shy of a club record.
They expect the Sharks to come out with a fury Friday night, hoping to combat the Blackhawks’ speed while trying to make the raucous crowd at the United Center — which stars cheering throughout the National Anthem — sit down and stay quiet.
The Blackhawks played tough defence during the first two games with a line led by centre Dave Bolland going against the Sharks’ top trio featuring Joe Thornton, who ended up slashing Bolland in the faceoff circle.
“I think he was just kind of frustrated with us back-checking, just always being around him. I don’t think he likes it,” Bolland said Wednesday when the Blackhawks got off their charter flight.
“The first game, was a lot harder, more finesse. Second game was chippier. This next one could come on as chippier. See how it goes,” Bolland added.
Chicago goalie Antti Niemi has pretty much played like a playoff veteran rather than a 26-year-old rookie in his first post-season. He had 69 saves in the first two games of the series.
The Sharks will no doubt try to get more traffic around the net when the series resumes Friday.
“We haven’t played these guys since January. We don’t have that hatred for them and we should,” San Jose’s Scott Nichol said.
“It’s a fine line where you don’t want to cost your team a penalty or a power play. We’ve been doing a really good job playing in between the whistles. There really hasn’t been too much cheap stuff or running into goalies or things like that. We’re not going to change but we can probably play a little meaner or nastier in between the whistles.”
Coach Todd McLellan isn’t concerned about being nasty as much as he is about being more aggressive on both ends.
“We’d like to be physical, we’d like to get after their defencemen down below the goal lines and prevent them from jumping in,” McLellan said.
“You’ve got to place the puck properly, you have to have some speed on the forecheck. Nastiness, I’m not sure that’s going to get us what we want. Tenaciousness is probably a better word for us.”
The Blackhawks, meanwhile, have been able to wedge themselves in front of the net and had three goals against Evgeni Nabokov in Game 2 that were the result of tips, redirects or deflections.
Toews, who has points in 11 straight games, had one of those goals. Troy Brouwer and Dustin Byfuglien, the 257-pound winger who’s playoff forte is getting in someone’s way, had the others.
Keeping Nabokov’s sight lines clear is a heavy assignment for the Sharks as is their history. They’ve lost all seven playoff series after falling behind 2-0.
“We have to understand you can’t win four games right in a row. We need to find out why our level hasn’t been high enough,” the Sharks’ Rob Blake said. “We have to generate more through that neutral zone, getting pucks in and make them pay a little bit more of a price in their zone and we’ll be good.”
AP writer Josh Dubow in San Jose, Calif., contributed to this report.