Rozner: Blackhawks' youngsters could learn from Knights
Close doesn't get you a trophy in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Not even a ribbon.
And though the Blackhawks were close in the first three games to making this a very tough and long series for Vegas -- and perhaps they still might -- the Golden Knights are among the NHL's best clubs for a reason.
Actually, many reasons.
The details are essential. Size, speed, sacrifice and goaltending are obviously crucial, but Vegas is excellent with the details and you can sum up this series -- the difference between up 3-1 or down 3-1 -- in a single battle that lasted 13 seconds.
With 4:50 left in the second period of Game 3 -- the Hawks down 1-0 in the game and 2-0 in the series -- Brandon Saad goes in hard on Vegas defenseman Brayden McNabb in the corner of the Knights' zone. Saad gets enough of the puck to allow Jonathan Toews to swoop in and collect.
All looks well for the Hawks at this moment, but all is not well if you zoom out.
As Toews turns back south and up the wall, 6-foot-4, 220-pound winger Alex Tuch is immediately on Toews and takes him off the puck. Tuch does not have to look up the boards to see his options because he knows support will be there.
He slides it up the wall and William Carrier -- who had been at the top of the circle but close enough to the boards to get there -- is indeed right where Tuch assumes he will be and Carrier possesses the puck briefly.
Carrier also knows he has help and makes a one-handed pass -- while being mugged by Dominik Kubalik -- to an open spot at the blueline, inside the dot. Patrick Brown -- who had been between the circles in his own end making sure he was available and also protecting defensively -- picks up the pass.
By now, Tuch has shaken off Toews and is busting up the ice as Brown pokes it past a stationary Adam Boqvist, whose timing is off by a hair on the play.
The result makes the decision look worse than it really is as Boqvist initially begins retreating when the rush develops, but reverses and tries to close the gap on Brown as the puck appears loose. It's too late and Boqvist is caught in between.
Brown gets the puck to Tuch who is at full sprint and now it's a 2-on-1. Tuch and defenseman Nate Schmidt -- who had been far behind the play, but jumped in as soon as Carrier beat Kubalik -- play catch on a give-and-go and Tuch gets off a good shot on Corey Crawford, who makes a big save but also gives up a big rebound.
Brown, meanwhile, never stops skating and Boqvist can't tie him up as Brown hammers the rebound into a wide open net.
More than the Hawks' problems on the play -- Toews losing a board battle, Kubalik late to his check, the aggressive Boqvist decision the wrong one by a split second and Duncan Keith getting beat on a 2-on-1 -- was how impressive the Vegas support was through the rush.
From the play in the corner, the plays up the wall and all the passes to open skaters, Vegas players were all doing two things at once. They were certain they were in a position to make a defensive play if needed, and they provided ice to pass the puck without giving up possession.
It's easy to say you need clean breakouts, but if forwards are not open for defensemen, it leaves the defense with no good option.
In every game in the series, there have been 20 such instances where Vegas players were prepared to protect their own net and also open for a pass. That puck support and being available for an outlet is the most imposing part of what is a very imposing team.
They rarely consider flipping a puck out of their zone or dumping one in the offensive zone, and the Hawks haven't done enough to force them into giving up the puck, though they were better at times in Game 4.
The Knights are consistently possessing the puck because they are constantly open and offering puck support in their own end. A difficult game is a lot easier when you're not chasing.
The Knights own the puck for long stretches because they provide options and passing lanes. It means being open and where you're supposed to be, while also being responsible defensively.
It's impressive. It's really impressive. It's the kind of thing Hawks coach Jeremy Colliton has hammered home with his players for more than a year, but not all of them are as interested as they ought to be in the team aspect of the game.
Regardless of what occurs from here, this has been an invaluable experience for the Hawks, who entered the tournament with the youngest roster and will depart with players who now understand the speed, physicality and intensity of postseason hockey.
If the Hawks can recognize it, and accept the responsibility, focusing on the details will be the most important lesson the Hawks take away from this series.
It really is in the details.