1 SE­RIES DOWN, 4 TO GO

hawks oust oil­ers to reach last 16, will play avalanche or knights next

Chicago Sun-Times - - SKY BEAT - BY BEN POPE BPOPE@SUN­TIMES.COM @BENPOPECST

Through the dark, cold days of win­ter, as the Black­hawks stag­gered through brief win­ning streaks and longer los­ing streaks, coach Jeremy Col­li­ton con­stantly main­tained his team was play­off-cal­iber.

On Fri­day, as the fi­nal sec­onds ticked off the Hawks’ se­ries-clinch­ing 3-2 vic­tory against the Oil­ers, Col­li­ton saw that vi­sion proved a re­al­ity.

‘‘The mes­sage has been that if you’re will­ing to ap­proach the game a cer­tain way and have a men­tal­ity that you’re will­ing to put the team be­fore your­self, you can win,’’ Col­li­ton said. ‘‘It’s been so re­ward­ing to see our team em­brace that.’’

For the first time since 2015, the Hawks have won a post­sea­son se­ries. For the first time since 2017, they have made it into the NHL’s field of 16 of­fi­cial play­off teams.

And for the first time since Col­li­ton re­placed Joel Quen­neville as the Hawks’ coach in Novem­ber 2018, his am­bi­tious goals for his team ap­pear real­is­ti­cally at­tain­able.

‘‘[In] mid-De­cem­ber, there was a marked dif­fer­ence in our ap­proach and just the com­mit­ment of the guys,’’ Col­li­ton said. ‘‘We got bet­ter as the year went on af­ter that point. [I’m] grate­ful that we’ve been able to con­tinue that process here in the sum­mer.’’

The 12th-seeded Hawks ad­vanced to a con­ven­tional best-of-seven se­ries against the

No. 1 seed in the Western Con­fer­ence, which will be de­ter­mined by the win­ner of the Avalanche-Golden Knights game Satur­day.

For now, how­ever, they can look back on their four games against the Oil­ers as the mo­ment where their old guard and new gen­er­a­tion learned how to win to­gether.

‘‘For us, it didn’t re­ally mat­ter what seed we were,’’ said cap­tain Jonathan Toews, who as­sisted on Do­minik Kuba­lik’s tiebreak­ing goal with 11:30 left. ‘‘Across our lineup, guys stepped up their game. [We’ve] got a lot of young guys who don’t maybe have a ton of play­off ex­pe­ri­ence show­ing what they can do. That gets you go­ing and mo­ti­vates you more than any­thing.’’

On Kuba­lik’s game-win­ner, Toews out­worked Oil­ers de­fense­man Ethan Bear for a loose puck. He then passed to Kuba­lik, who lifted a wrist shot past Oil­ers goalie Mikko Kosk­i­nen from the slot.

‘‘To be hon­est, I didn’t even take a look at the net,’’ Kuba­lik said. ‘‘I was just try­ing to shoot it as quick as pos­si­ble.’’

Goalie Corey Craw­ford, who was rusty through the first three games af­ter barely re­turn­ing from COVID-19 in time for the Hawks’ trip to Ed­mon­ton, shook off his rust to put to­gether ar­guably one of the best per­for­mances of his play­off ca­reer.

Craw­ford put a goal in the first minute of

the game out of his mind and fin­ished with 43 saves, high­lighted by nu­mer­ous stops on wave af­ter wave of des­per­ate Oil­ers at­tacks as time wound down.

His hero­ics helped the Hawks over­come deficits of 71-47 in shots and 43-25 in scor­ing chances — 29-10 and 19-6, re­spec­tively, in the third pe­riod alone.

‘‘I felt way bet­ter each game, play­ing each game and just see­ing dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios and si­t­u­a­tions,’’ Craw­ford said. ‘‘Once you get more of that, just the bet­ter you feel. Tonight was ob­vi­ously bet­ter.’’ ‘‘He was our best player,’’ Kuba­lik said. The Oil­ers threat­ened un­til the buzzer, whistling a shot just wide with mere sec­onds left on the clock. But the fi­nal horn marked the start of what the Hawks hope will be a spe­cial play­off run to sur­prise ev­ery­one but them­selves.

‘‘There’s al­ways go­ing to be maybe un­war­ranted praise and crit­i­cism,’’ Toews said. ‘‘I don’t think any of that’s fazed us. We were pretty ea­ger to get this chance and show what we can do. Tech­ni­cally, we just made the play­offs now, so the real fun be­gins.’’ ✶

GETTY IM­AGES

The Hawks’ Matthew High­more redi­rects a shot past Oil­ers goalie Mikko Kosk­i­nen in the first pe­riod Fri­day.

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