Hawks need top scorers to kick it into high gear

Don't expect any miracles against Coyotes if Kane, Sharp and Toews don't produce

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This time, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville sounded full of regret more than rage after his team's overtime loss to the Coyotes.

This time, Quenneville spoke in a soft voice that lacked the hard edge it carried 48 hours earlier, when he criticized officials badly enough to draw a $10,000 fine and Coyotes goon Raffi Torres for his vicious hit on Marian Hossa.

This time, an emotionally spent coach suddenly searching for answers came up with the same word to describe a 3-2 overtime loss Thursday night that produced a familiar ache.

"Brutal,'' Quenneville said. "Kind of comparable to the last game.''

The Game 3 defeat was defined by a blow to the head. This one felt like a kick in the gut.

What made it most painful to accept for the Hawks was that nobody could blame disgraceful officiating or dirty play. Nobody dared mention the absence of Hossa, either, because the stars the Hawks missed most were on the ice trying in vain to make an impact: Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews. Did I leave out any other elite offensive player from whom the Hawks simply need more?

Everybody talks about how Stanley Cup contenders need secondary scoring in the playoffs. How about primary scoring? The Hawks' only victory in a series they trail 3-1 came on an overtime goal from Bryan Bickell. On Thursday, the goals came from two guys who were forgotten souls the final month of the season: Michael Frolik and Brendan Morrison.

When Coyotes winger Mikkel Boedker scored the winning goal 2 minutes, 15 seconds into overtime, he earned his team a road victory that the hosts with more overall talent didn't deserve. When Coyotes captain Shane Doan picked Hawks defenseman Johnny Oduya clean in his zone and knocked in a rebound for the game's first goal, it was shades of Chris Campoli carelessly turning over the puck last year against the Canucks.

In a Game 4 that required a Game 7 mentality, the Hawks waited too long to play with the necessary desperation. Not until the Coyotes scored two goals in 44 seconds of the third period to take a 2-0 lead did the Hawks seem to consider this could be their last game of the season in Chicago.

"It seems like we get more motivated when we go down a goal or two,'' Toews said. "We see how well we can play and how much pressure we can put on them. We seem to be less afraid to make mistakes.''

Facing extinction Saturday night in the desert, the Hawks have no margin for error now. If they start playing with urgency too late, their season will end too early.

Line up the rosters of the Blackhawks and Coyotes side by side. Circle the best five players on each team, not including goaltenders. Ask yourself if any of the circled names of Coyotes are ones you would take over the Hawks' top five. Chances are, unless you have a yen for the Yotes, the answer will be no.

That's not disrespectful to a Coyotes team that executes its system as well as any team in the playoffs. That's an indictment of a Hawks team with more individual skill that struggles collectively to raise its level of play when it matters most.

Of course, the right goalie can compensate for any talent deficiency — and Mike Smith did just that for the Coyotes until the closing moments.

Smith's most convincing performance in the series before Thursday was when he flopped in Game 2 in the collision with Andrew Shaw, but this was no act. This was a goalie looking poised to steal a game for his team on the road, the way the elite ones do.

Through four games that would be difficult to imagine being any more even, the difference has been in the crease. Cut through all the controversy over Shaw's suspension and Torres' hit, and it comes down to the Coyotes having a goalie who looks impenetrable enough to win the Cup and the Hawks don't. Crawford has come up big other than the soft goal in overtime of Game 3. Smith has been bigger.

"Our players are thriving under the pressure,'' Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said.

Meanwhile, too many Blackhawks are disappearing when their team needs them most.

This one was all on the Hawks, who allowed the Coyotes to establish the plodding, methodical pace. Allowed Smith to see less traffic than a country road at midnight. Allowed the series to return to Arizona, where the Coyotes and their goaltender look poised to end it.

Brutal indeed.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh
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