Veterans well-rested, players fully recovered from injuries; a shot to play for the Stanley Cup at No. 12 in their conference; a dominant 4-0 exhibition win over the defending Stanley Cup champions; a decisive first postseason win as an underdog against the true home team touting the two best players in the league... The Blackhawks have a lot to be happy about, and it sounds like that's the case behind the scenes.
"The excitement's higher than normal," Blackhawks forward Brandon Saad, who scored Chicago's third goal of Saturday's 6-4 Game 1 victory over the Oilers said. "It's a unique situation, playing without fans and being in a bubble and things like that. But the camaraderie on the team is at an all-time high. Everyone's excited to be here, be in playoff action, and anytime you're scoring goals, you're hooting and hollering. It was just a great feeling overall today."
We'll see if the Hawks can keep that feeling alive for Monday's Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Qualifier against Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl's Oilers.
Whatever is going on off the ice and in the room yielded a resolve that was virtually non-existent during the regular season. After Edmonton went ahead early in the game off a McDavid power-play goal from a mindless Chicago too-many-men penalty, rather than hang their heads, the Hawks went to work.
Second line center Dylan Strome led the charge with the equalizer, then the Blackhawks' top line of Dominik Kubalik--Jonathan Toews--Brandon Saad took over, scoring two more first period goals and shutting down McDavid's line in 5-on-5 play.
"I don't think it was surprising," Strome said on Sunday. "We've been a team that's been pretty resilient all year. Maybe too many ups and downs, but that maybe prepared us well for this kind of format. We know anything can happen and they showed that at the end of the game with two quick goals and it got pretty close there at the end with the goalie pulled.
"We played well and they got off to that good start on the power play with that too-many-men call, so the biggest thing for us is just staying out of the box. We saw how lethal their power play is and how much damage it can do. Take penalties as needed, maybe to prevent a goal or save a goal. It was nice to get four in the first period there, so it was a great start for us."
Blackhawks head coach Jeremy Colliton has noticed a fired up and opportunistic club in front of him. Now the coach and his Hawks will shift their focus to Monday's Game 2, when the Oilers will hungrily look to redeem themselves.
"We’re making the best of the situation," Colliton said on Sunday. "We had a chance to play in the playoffs and we’re excited about the opportunity, we won one game. Now it’s in the past and we had a meeting today and it’s all about Game 2, understanding the challenge ahead of us.
"They’re an excellent team that’s going to respond. I’m sure they have a lot of confidence in that room that they have what it takes to win and they’re going to be better on Monday. We’re going to need to improve, too, and that’s gotta be the only thing we’re thinking about."
Following the Hawks' exhibition win over the Blues, AC/DC's "It's a Long Way to the Top" could be heard blasting in the team's dressing room. It's the same tune the squad was playing when traditional playoff hopes were alive in early February. Only now, the postseason is a reality and Chicago has a strong start with the accompanying momentum underneath them.
"We've been a close team all year. We love to hang out, and there's really no bad blood or animosity on the team," Strome said. "Everyone's good friends and everyone enjoys being around each other, and the bubble is only bringing that even closer. We're hanging out a lot, playing some cards, playing video games, watching hockey. It helps getting off to a win against St. Louis, so obviously the team morale is higher when you win. Two wins to start is a great way to start and hopefully we can keep following that up."
With a counterattack looming from the Western Conference's No. 5 seed, we'll see if the Hawks can keep the good vibes coming on and off the ice and give fans and each other more to hoot and holler about in Game 2 on Monday.