By Brad Gardner
The Blackhawks advanced to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a 5-1 win over the Minnesota Wild on Thursday night. Corey Crawford put on a show early for the United Center crowd, before the offense kicked into gear and put the Wild in the rear view.
Marian Hossa scored twice and Jonathan Toews, scoreless in the first four games of the series, got on the score sheet with two assists. The Hawks out-shot the Wild 33-22 in the game, but Crawford had a handful of huge stops in those 21 saves.
The visitors had more than a few good looks in the opening period, but the play of Crawford kept them off the board. The stingy Hawks defense from game four was not immediately noticeable, but Crawford could do no wrong; his worst rebounds wound up being his best saves, turning away initial chances from the likes of Jason Pominville and Devin Setoguchi only to make better saves on the subsequent looks from Mikko Koivu and Matt Cullen.
Even though the visitors had carried play for the most part in the early-going, Marian Hossa put the Blackhawks on the board first. Wild defenseman Jonas Brodin picked up a Brent Seabrook dump in, but pressure from Brandon Saad forced the rookie blueliner to attempt a blind pass up the boards. Jonathan Toews picked it off and centered to Hossa, whose quick shot beat Harding to the short side under his glove. Ryan Suter blocked Harding’s view of the shot, and Hossa’s blast put the Blackhawks up 1-0.
The Blackhawks finished the first period tied with the Wild at 10 shots apiece, but there is no question they were fortunate to escape the first twenty minutes with the lead.
The opening minutes of the second period belonged to the home team, as the Blackhawks extended their lead with a pair of goals inside the first seven minutes of the middle frame. Marcus Kruger made it 2-0 on a wrap-around goal at 3:19 of the second. Michael Frolik sent the puck wide of the net, but Harding came out to play it to the endboards with this stick. Kruger collected the loose puck, and with Harding slow coming across his crease, was able to beat the goalie five hole to extend the Hawks’ lead.
Marian Hossa’s second goal of the game pushed the lead to 3-0 just over three minutes later. Marcus Kruger controlled the puck in the corner and fed Brandon Saad for a one-time attempt. Harding saved the initial chance but could not control the rebound. Hossa picked up the loose puck on his back hand, took a couple strides towards the middle of the ice, and found room to tuck the puck around Harding’s skate for his third goal of the series.
Minnesota coach Mike Yeo pulled the trigger on a goalie change after the third goal, putting 23-year-old rookie Darcy Kuemper into his second career playoff appearance. The Wild went on their second powerplay of the game a couple after the change, but the Hawks’ PK duo of Toews and Hossa wound up challenging Kuemper with looks from in close.
Torrey Mitchell was nonetheless able to get the Wild on the board a shift after the penalty expired, drawing the score to 3-1 at 10:11 of the second. Handzus won the defensive zone faceoff but Nick Leddy lost the puck off his stick. The Wild controlled the puck along the boards until Kyle Brodziak fed the puck into the slot from below the goal line. Mitchell one-timed the puck past Crawford, but it would be the Blackhawks goaltender’s only blemish of the game.
The Wild’s momentum was quickly squashed by Andrew Shaw, who was on the receiving end of a fortunate bounce off the endboards. Bryan Bickell threw the puck towards the net from the sideboards, and Kuemper used his stick to direct it behind his net. The puck took a hard carom off of the endboards and back out to the other side of the net. Kuemper was slow to recover, giving Shaw plenty of net. The goal put the Blackhawks up 4-1 and they would carry that lead into the second intermission.
The Blackhawks continued to pressure the Wild in the third, drawing a pair of offensive zone penalties in the first five minutes to go on a 5-on-3 advantage. Patrick Sharp scored his team-leading fifth goal of the series by picking up a rebound in front of Kuemper and lifting it over top of the downed goalie. Hossa put the initial shot on net and picked up his third point of the game, while Toews picked up his second assist of the game by getting a piece of the loose puck before Sharp’s shot. The Blackhawks held on to seal the series by a score of 5-1.
– Corey Crawford continued his incredible run and was acknowledged by the United Center crowd on several occasions for doing so. He finished round one with a .950 save percentage, 1.32 goals against average, and his first career playoff series win.
– Minnesota managed only four shots on goal in the final period of their season as the Hawks fell back to defend the lead.
– The Hawks killed both of the Wild’s powerplays in game five, finishing the series a perfect 8-for-8 in the series. The Hawks powerplay converted on one of two chances in game five, finishing the series with two conversions in 13 powerplay chances.
– Not as important when the team is defending a multi-goal lead, but the Hawks fell back to earth in blocked shots. After all the hubbub about their 26 blocked shots in game four, the Hawks had a series-low nine blocks in game five. They did well to limit chances in general, particularly late in the game when they were hanging back and keeping the Wild from getting much pressure established.
– End of round one for the Hawks also marks the end of the local television coverage, the Hawks will be playing on NBC/CNBC/NBCSports the rest of the way.
– The Blackhawks’ second round opponent could be decided as early as Friday – if Anaheim finishes their series against Detroit at Joe Louis Arena on Friday, the Hawks would draw the San Jose Sharks in the conference semifinals. If Detroit manages to come back from the 3-2 series deficit, the Red Wings and Blackhawks would meet in the second round.