The intensity level between the Blackhawks and the Blues reached fever pitch the moment players from each team gathered for the opening faceoff of Game 1 of their first-round postseason matchup, and it hasn't abated.
There has been no easing into the playoffs for the Hawks as they begin their quest for a second consecutive Stanley Cup, having to face their bitterest Central Division rivals. That is in contrast to a year ago, when the Hawks opened against the Wild, a team that pretty much was just happy to be there and provided little resistance to the 2013 Presidents' Trophy winners.
This time around, the Hawks are in a series that more resembles a Western Conference final, where the pace is breakneck, the hitting is for keeps and every decision with the puck can be the difference between advancing and going home for the summer.
"This is as competitive as you can get," Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said Saturday. "This series, every game, the unpredictability in the game and what's at stake from start to finish is pretty amazing. You have to commend the players on both teams. Every shift is important."
The Hawks have to beat one of the best teams in the Western Conference just to reach the second round. If they dispatch the Blues -- and they can do just that Sunday in Game 6 at the United Center -- they Hawks still would have two more series just to get to the Stanley Cup finals.
But first things first.
"Definitely, from Game 1, it's a high intensity of physical play and some tight games," winger Marian Hossa said of battling the Blues. "So it's a little bit different series in the first round than it was last year. The (Blues) were a dominating team in the regular season, and that's why the games are so tight."
Added teammate Bryan Bickell: "Even the regular-season games (against the Blues) it almost felt like playoff games. (With) the new rivalry we have between them the last couple of years, it has amped the series up. It just makes for some good hockey."
While nothing has been determined yet as the Blues won't go away without a fight -- possibly literally -- the Hawks have some serious momentum after three consecutive victories gave them a 3-2 series lead.
Against the Wild around this time last year, the Hawks rolled to a series victory in five games, outscoring the Wild 17-7 in the process. With four overtime games in the first five against the Blues, and the fifth also a nail-biter that came down to the wire in regulation, the Hawks have had to battle every inch of the way.
Over the course of the first five games, they have absorbed more hits from the Blues (205) than they did in 2013 against the Wild (165), meaning more bumps and bruises to nurse heading into Game 6.
"This is great hockey," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "It has everything. It has great goals, it has great goaltending, it has great plays (and) it has great individual plays. There is so much drama in these games; you have to admire both teams. Neither team is giving each other much, and both teams have tremendous resolve. Unfortunately, one of them has to go down early. We just don't want it to be us."
Neither do the Hawks.
"We have a good opportunity (Sunday) to finish the series," Bickell said. "We're amped up, and our fans our going are going to be amped up. It's the biggest game of the year."
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