Let's be honest: The Blackhawks dominated the Edmonton Oilers in Game 1. The final score was 6-4, but there was never a doubt as to which team was in the driver’s seat from start to finish.
So going into Game 2, the Blackhawks knew the Oilers would come out desperate.
"We’d be naïve," head coach Jeremy Colliton said before the game, "if we don’t think they’re going to throw everything they have at us."
And that's what the Oilers did. To be more exact: That's what Connor McDavid did.
After scoring 2:34 into Game 1, the two-time Art Ross Trophy winner scored 19 seconds into Game 2 and then again 3:46 later to give the Oilers a 2-0 lead before the Blackhawks even knew what hit them. He completed the hat trick in the second period, giving him four goals through two games so far.
It was clear from the first shift Game 2 would have a different feeling than Game 1. The Oilers, this time, were in control and they followed No. 97's lead.
"They were much better as a team than they were in Game 1, so give them credit there," Jonathan Toews said following a 6-3 loss on Monday. "And to add to the fact, I don't think we made things as hard on them as we did in the first game. So everything we did in that first game, we've got to step all that team game up a notch.
"McDavid's obviously a focus for me, and when we're not making things hard enough for them offensively, then we get ourselves in spots where we end up taking penalties, and you know what happens on the power play, a guy like McDavid's going to make you play. A couple times early in the game, we give him grade A chances and he's not making any mistakes. You know what we're going to get out of him every game, so we've got to be better on him."
You just knew McDavid wouldn’t let his team fall behind 2-0 in a series that easily, especially as the No. 5 seed in their own building. He certainly looked extra motivated to be a factor at even strength after being shut down in Game 1 — all three of his points came on the power play.
This was a virtual must-win for the Oilers. Only one team in NHL history has overcome a 2-0 deficit in a best-of-five series: New York Islanders in 1985 after losing Games 1 and 2 in overtime to the Washington Capitals then rallying to win the next three.
"Connor led the way," Oilers forward Tyler Ennis said. "He set the tone for us and gave us a spark. That's exactly what we needed, and everybody followed."
Credit the Blackhawks for clawing back and showing the kind of resiliency that helped them win Game 1. They fell behind 2-0 and tied it up at 3-3 before McDavid's hat trick put the Oilers back in front 4-3.
The game got away from the Blackhawks in the third period, where they were out-chanced 10-1. But that what was bound to happen for a team that was playing catch-up all game.
In the end, the Blackhawks won't sugarcoat their overall performance. It was no secret the Oilers would come out hungry, and the Blackhawks simply didn't match their intensity.
"Ultimately, we didn’t play to the level we need to to beat this team," Colliton said. "We knew going into this series it would be a challenge. ... It’s a 1-1 series, I’m sure no one picked us to sweep them. They won a game, now we have to find a way to be better on Wednesday, and we will."
This is what José Abreu has been waiting for.
This is what Abreu knew was coming.
This is what Abreu was talking about when he spent the entirety of last year saying how badly he wanted to be part of the franchise’s bright future.
“Something very big,” he said last summer, forecasting what the White Sox were building, “and I don’t want to leave here.”
He later admitted he never even considered playing for another team during his brief time as a free agent last offseason. Heck, he didn’t even really make it to the winter, signing his new three-year contract to stay on the South Side before Thanksgiving.
He believed in the future. And now he’s seeing it.
The White Sox won their fifth straight game Monday night, a 6-4 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers that was dripping with playoff feeling, the kind of vibe that’s been absent from South Side baseball during the majority of Abreu’s time here. He’s yet to play for a team that’s finished the season north of .500.
But Monday, he delivered the game’s clutchest hit: a two-run homer that sent a 4-2 deficit to a 4-all tie in the seventh inning. A wild pitch brought the go-ahead run home the following inning, and the White Sox were winners.
Abreu’s personal heroics alone aren’t what’s made this year different. Those we've seen before. It’s what’s going on around him.
On the same night Abreu blasted that ball to center field at Miller Park, the young players who enticed him to stick around showed what they can do, too. Luis Robert had a single, a pair of walks and two stolen bases. Yoán Moncada had three hits, including a ninth-inning home run. Nomar Mazara picked up a single in his first game in a White Sox uniform. And Nick Madrigal took a four-pitch walk that ended with that game-winning wild pitch.
Expand the scope to the last five games, all White Sox wins, and there’s a heaping helping of the kind of stuff Abreu knew was coming: Lucas Giolito turning in an ace-like performance last week in Cleveland, Robert and Eloy Jiménez both coming a triple away from the cycle Saturday in Kansas City and Madrigal knocking out four hits Sunday.
“It’s always good to be around this team we have right now, this group,” Abreu said through team interpreter Billy Russo on Monday night. “A lot of energy and passion, that motivates you more every day. … I was looking to make good contact in that at-bat (that resulted in the home run). It was very special. I want to keep doing those things for this team.”
Of course, what made Abreu’s multi-year contract feel like an inevitability — apart from Abreu saying on multiple occasions that he’d sign himself if the White Sox didn’t put the papers in front of him — was that the relationship was a two-way street. Abreu voiced his love for the White Sox, and they returned the favor, talking about everything he’s brought to the team as a team leader and a role model for the young players.
A lineup that’s been so productive this season is well stocked with members of the José Abreu Mentorship Program. That lineup is capable of doing things no other White Sox lineup Abreu’s been a part of could do. And, whether this year or down the road, that could include the biggest of things.
“Frankly, my happiness for a guy like José will come once we're able to present him with a ring,” general manager Rick Hahn said before Opening Day, “because that's what he deserves based on what he's meant for this organization and his performance on the field. Certainly look forward to, hopefully, the opportunity to do that in the coming years with him.”
Abreu didn’t have to wait long to get a taste of a different kind of baseball, with Monday night’s game — just the 10th of this season — featuring a parade of edge-of-your-seat moments.
One of those intense moments? Abreu’s at-bat in the fifth inning. With Robert on base ahead of him, Abreu fought off one pitch after another in an 11-pitch at-bat. It ended in a strikeout, but it allowed Abreu to see just about everything Corbin Burnes had to offer. Two innings later, Abreu homered off Burnes to tie the game.
"Those at-bats put you in a good position for next time you face the pitcher," Abreu said. "That at-bat was the key for me to get a homer in the next at-bat. I saw those pitches and was prepared for what he wanted to do. Even though I struck out, that was a really key moment and at-bat for me."
That’s the kind of player Abreu’s been all along. Now, he’s doing it in the middle of a potent lineup on a team with realistic postseason expectations.
Intensity was hard to come by for viewers over three rebuilding seasons that featured a combined 284 losses. One five-game winning streak won’t wash all those rebuilding-era losses away by itself, but the White Sox are over .500 and in second place in the AL Central. That’s playoff position in this bizarre season with an eight-team American League playoff field. Fans are starting to get a little giddy, and the players are certainly recognizing a different feel in the clubhouse after they turned around a 1-4 start.
But this is Abreu we’re talking about.
Moncada might be stylish, Robert might be fast, and Jiménez might be fun-loving. But they all have one thing in common learned from their time in the José Abreu Mentorship Program: They work hard.
And so with the White Sox streaking, leave it to Abreu to deliver the most Abreu of messages.
“We can’t get too comfortable. We need to do our job and keep working because we need to get more results,” he said. “This is no time, by any means, to get comfortable and think we are a finished product. We need to keep working.”