Through the dark, cold days of winter, as the Blackhawks staggered through brief winning streaks and longer losing streaks, Jeremy Colliton constantly maintained that his team was a playoff-caliber one.
On Friday, as the final seconds ticked off the Hawks’ series-clinching 3-2 win over the Oilers, Colliton finally saw that vision proven 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, the Hawks have made it into the NHL’s field of 16 official playoff teams.
And for the first time since Jeremy Colliton replaced Joel Quenneville as Hawks coach in 2018, Colliton’s ambitious goals for his team — which looked, at times, borderline naive earlier this same season — appear realistically attainable.
“[In] mid-December, there was a marked difference in our approach and just the commitment of the guys,” he 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 will now advance to a conventional best-of-seven series against the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed, which will be determined by the winner of the Avalanche vs. Golden Knights game Saturday.
For now, though, they can look back on their four games against the Oilers as the moment where the Hawks’ old guard and new generation learned how to win together.
“For us, it didn’t really matter what seed we were,” said Jonathan Toews, whose assist to Dominik Kubalik for the game-winning goal with 11:30 left exemplified that perfectly.
“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 the game winner, Toews out-worked and out-willed Oilers defenseman Ethan Bear for a loose puck and fed Kubalik in the slot, who lifted a wrist shot over goaltender Mikko Koskinen.
“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.”
Hawks goaltender Corey Crawford, rusty through the first three games after barely returning from COVID-19 in time for the trip to Edmonton, shook off his rust just in time to put together an iconic performance — arguably one of the best of his playoff career.
The veteran goalie flushed a goal in the game’s first minute to finish with 43 saves, highlighted by numerous miraculous stops on wave after wave of desperate Oilers attacks as time wound down.
His heroics helped the Hawks overcome deficits of 71-47 in shot attempts 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,” Dominik Kubalik added, putting it simply.
The Oilers threatened until the buzzer, whistling a shot just wide with mere seconds 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.”