By Chris Block
When the second-round series became official, about the last probable outcome most people would have come up with was a Blackhawks sweep of the hottest team in the NHL since January.
Yet, Chicago did just that. And now the Hawks are one step closer (8 wins, in fact) from their 3rd Stanley Cup in 6 seasons.
Thursday night in St. Paul, the Blackhawks completed the 4-game sweep of the Minnesota Wild by a 4-3 score in captivating fashion before what was a left of the sold out Xcel Energy Center crowd by the time the final horn sounded.
In doing so, the Blackhawks become the first team from either conference to advance into the Conference Finals. They now await the winner of the Anaheim-Calgary series, which resumes on Friday night in Calgary with the Ducks up 2-1 in that duel.
It could be up to 7 to 10 days before the Blackhawks play again, depending on how long the other series go as neither Conference Final series can begin until the series currently going have concluded.
Brent Seabrook, Andrew Shaw, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa scored for the visitors in the series-clinching victory.
The Hawks appeared to have Game 4 put away with 3:07 to play after Marian Hossa scored a short-handed empty-net goal to increase the Hawks lead at the time to 4-1.
But a seriously ill-advised Bryan Bickell boarding penalty in the Wild zone on Kyle Brodziak that also led to the Hossa empty-netter gave the Wild some late hope.
Minnesota potted a pair of late goals off the sticks of Jason Pominville and Nino Niederreiter to narrow the gap, but even one last power play awarded after the Hawks got caught with Too Many Men with 15 seconds left was enough as the Wild didn’t play desperate enough hockey until it was too late.
Corey Crawford was named the game’s 1st star. He stopped 34 of 37 shots against. His counterpart, Devan Dubnyk, had the shine on his rose stained in this series. Dubnyk was merely average over the four games, and average goaltending won’t cut it against the caliber of offense the Blackhawks hurl at opponents. Dubnyk shouldn’t be the primary focus, however. The Wild leaders barely performed up to the level of their expectations in the series, Ryan Suter, Thomas Vanek and Mikko Koivu in particular. Supporting cast members like Charlie Coyle, Jared Spurgeon and Kyle Brodziak were just not good enough either.
The win wasn’t without loss and impending adversity for the Blackhawks, though.
Michal Rozsival suffered an ugly left ankle injury on his second shift of the middle period. Rozsival got his skates tangled underneath him at the Hawks blue line as he tried to spin quickly to defend a potential Vanek breakaway. Rozsival’s left skate and ankle folded over underneath him and he fell to the ice. Rozsival needed to be helped off the ice by Brad Richards and Duncan Keith as Rozsival could put no weight at all on the left leg.
After the game Joel Quenneville said “it doesn’t look good,” in response to Rozsival’s injury. In Quenneville ‘speak’ that would indicate Rozsival is done for the playoffs for sure. Watching the replay, that would be a solid bet. It’s also likely to be how Rozsival’s Blackhawks playing career will end.
With Rozsival out for the final 35 minutes of the game, Keith wound up playing half the game (29:39). Niklas Hjalmarsson (26:09), Brent Seabrook (24:57) and Johnny Oduya (22:38) combined to shoulder the load in Rozsival’s absence. Kimmo Timonen skated 8:25, which even with Rozsival out for more than half the game, was still only Timonen’s second-highest minute total of the series behind Game 1.
So, with Rozsival out of the picture, the Blackhawks have an enormous void to fill and no definite answer to that puzzle. Quenneville clearly doesn’t trust Timonen at this stage. He may never either. The other options are David Rundblad and Kyle Cumiskey. Newcomer Michael Paliotta is on the roster and eligible to play in the playoffs but I can’t see him being seriously considered, even above the aforementioned two.
The longshot is Stephen Johns, who is playing some fantastic hockey for the Rockford IceHogs right now. But that team in heading into Game 2 of their second round series against Grand Rapids on Friday night. It would be tough to ask Johns to make his NHL debut in the NHL Conference Final against Anaheim (presumably). However, when you consider the other options, Johns would still be the best choice. I don’t expect it. Though, its possible Rockford’s season could be over by the time the Blackhawks play again and at that point I think it would be more of a possibility. Johns is an excellent skater who is physical and is peaking right now. Rundblad is just about useless without the puck. Cumiskey hasn’t played in a game in three weeks and it’ll be a month by the time the next round begins. It’s quite the mess the Hawks find themselves in now. They’re the team to beat now in the West, even ahead of Anaheim, who will have home ice in the next round. That said, the Hawks can’t expect to skate essentially four, or four and a half defenseman every night and win another Cup.
Rozsival was playing some great hockey for the most part in these playoffs. The veteran is fighting age, and years of wear and tears, but he’s been effective as the Hawks’ 5th defenseman. He’s prone to his senior moments, but overall his loss will be extremely tough for Joel Quenneville to compensate for. Roszival’s contribution can’t be overstated either as he was playing hard minutes alongside Duncan Keith against the opposition’s top lines. He was always finishing the games with the 5th most minutes of any Hawks’ defender, but those weren’t easy minutes. Those aren’t minutes you’ll see Rundblad sliding into, nor will Cumiskey. So it’ll be a big issue moving forward for Quenneville and Mike Kitchen.
Timonen skated 5 shifts in the second period, all after Rozsival left the game, and only 3 shifts in the third.
Speaking of ice time, both Marcus Kruger (15:24) and Andrew Desjardins (14:15) finished with more ice time than Patrick Sharp (14:12). Some of that was due to the two penalties the Hawks were called for in the final four minutes, but it also goes to show how essential Marcus Kruger is the success of the Blackhawks.
Ryan Suter had a great chance to give his team an early lead in the game’s fourth minute but he whiffed on a bouncing puck that popped out into the slot. Had the puck settled for him, Suter had Crawford moving left to right.
A Brent Seabrook wrist shot off the left shinpad of Marco Scandella put Chicago on the board first at 10:23 of the first period. Seabrook started and finished the scoring sequence as he shielded the puck from Nino Niederreiter behind the Hawks’ goal after Niederreiter had chipped the puck in deep and chased it. Seabrook, with help from Crawford, chipped the puck around the end boards to Johnny Oduya, who sent it up the wall to Bryan Bickell skating out of the zone. Bickell then fired a cross ice pass into Seabrook’s skates, as he had joined the breakout, at center. Seabrook kicked the puck to his stick and gained the Wild blue line. Instead of dropping, or leaving the puck for Patrick Kane, who had to pull up on the blue line at the right wall, Seabrook chose to take his own shot and the redirect off Scandella’s shin sent the puck soaring over Devan Dubnyk’s left glove shoulder and into the top near corner.
The opening twenty minutes were very even in terms of action, with the difference being the Hawks getting a bounce off Scandella’s shin. Shots were 8-8 in the first period.
In the second, Toews got called for hooking Ryan Suter deep in the Wild zone at the 18 second mark but the Minnesota power play couldn’t cash in to tie the game.
Shaw connected on a Hawks power play soon after the Toews’ penalty had expired. The Hawks caught a break when Toews’ centering pass vanished underneath a fallen Nate Prosser. Shaw located it. Dubnyk never did and Shaw slammed the loose puck through Dubnyk’s five hole to give Chicago a 2-0 bulge.
Minutes later, Rozsival got his skates tangled at the Hawks blue line and fell awkwardly, twisting and mangling his left ankle in the process as the veteran blueliner hit the ice. Nino Niederreiter had saucered a sixty foot pass from the Wild zone down the middle for a streaking Thomas Vanek. When Rozsival fell, Vanek went in alone but Crawford stopped his backhand bid with the right pad.
Off the ensuing faceoff to Crawford’s left, Erik Haula beat Marcus Kruger on the draw. Matt Dumba put a slapper on net and Haula poked the rebound home to trim the deficit to 2-1.
Minnesota put a good push on in the second, as Crawford faced 18 shots in the middle frame, but allowed just one to get by.
Third period was pretty tightly checked until Patrick Kane got a puck from Bickell and snuck a shot by Dubnyk off the blocker, stick and just across the goal line with 6:40 to go to give the Hawks a 3-1 advantage. The goal was Kane’s 5th of the series, 7th of the playoffs. The secondary assist went to Hjalmarsson for the floating stretch pass over the neutral zone to Bickell at the Wild blue line.
Then the game got ridiculous.
Bickell took a dumb boarding penalty when he ran Kyle Brodziak in the Wild end with 3:58 left to play.
Minnesota’s power play, plus an extra attacker, posted a handful of near misses in the initial 50 seconds of Bickell’s minor, culminating when a Zach Parise backhand whack found Crawford’s left post.
Seconds later, the puck bounced out to Toews in the low slot. Toews handed it to Hossa a few feet in front of him and Hossa fired it down into the empty Wild net to make the score 4-1 Hawks with 3:07 to go. The goal was Hossa’s first of the postseason. Toews collected his 7th assist here.
The Wild’s power play continued as the air was sucked out of the Xcel Energy Center and some of the 19,163 fans began heading for the parking lots with their team down 3 goals with 3 minutes to play in their season.
Just then, Jared Spurgeon’s point shot was redirected past Crawford by Jason Pominville with 20 seconds remaining on the Bickell penalty and 2:18 left on the game clock. The goal was scored with Dubnyk again on the bench for an extra attacker.
Shaw nearly had a empty-net goal on a wraparound attempt with 1:45 to go but Ryan Suter pokechecked him at the last second.
Down at the other end 18 seconds later, Nino Niederreiter from the goal line left extended banked a shot in off Crawford to trim the lead to 4-3. This was another 6-to-5 skater goal and Niederreiter’s 4th tally of the playoffs.
Toews clanked iron from 35 feet out with the Wild net again empty with 25 seconds left. Toews got a pass from Saad on a two-on-one with Spurgeon back and the Wild net vacated. When the action drifted back to the Chicago zone the Hawks got nabbed for having too many men on the ice.
So the final 14.9 seconds the Wild had a power play and the extra attacker with Dubnyk gone. Crawford came up with the biggest stop of the game with 7 seconds left on a Koivu snapper from atop the right circle. Ryan Suter had one final look but his shot flew wide of Crawford’s glove hand as the final second clicked down.
The horn sounded and for a couple seconds all five Blackhawks on for the late penalty kill kind of stood around stunned for a couple seconds. Kruger and Hjalmarsson were the first to raise their hands in victory, the latter then breaking his stick in celebration. Keith and Toews looked up towards the clock, as if they were reluctant to believe the game and series was actually over. Then the Blackhawks bench cleared in business-like fashion and the Hawks converged to congratulate their goaltender.
Dubnyk allowed 3 goals against the 24 shots he faced in 57 minutes in front of the Wild net. It’s a deflating end to a storybook run in the second half by Dubnyk, who was the primary reason Minnesota even made the playoffs as it was the stability Dubnyk brought after being acquired in January that guided the Wild as the renewed their confidence and found their game again in the second half after a period where Mike Yeo’s job appeared to be in jeopardy and the team was at risk of being blown up.
Joel Quenneville’s Winning Hand Played Again Game 4 in St. Paul
20-Brandon Saad / 19-Jonathan Toews / 81-Marian Hossa
29-Bryan Bickell / 91-Brad Richards / 88-Patrick Kane
10-Patrick Sharp / 80-Antoine Vermette / 86-Teuvo Teravainen
11-Andrew Desjardins / 16-Marcus Kruger / 65-Andrew Shaw
2-Duncan Keith / 32-Michal Rozsival
27-Johnny Oduya / 4-Niklas Hjalmarsson
44-Kimmo Timonen / 7-Brent Seabrook
33-Scott Darling (backup)
31-Antti Raanta (emergency, 3rd goalie)
Defense: 5-David Rundblad… 26-Kyle Cumiskey… 47-Michael Paliotta…
Forwards: 13-Dan Carcillo.. 23-Kris Versteeg… 42-Joakim Nordstrom…
Minnesota Wild Game 4 lines, pairs & specials presented by Mike Yeo
11-Zach Parise / 64-Mikael Granlund / 29-Jason Pominville
16-Jason Zucker / 9-Mikko Koivu / 3-Charlie Coyle
22-Nino Niederreiter / 21-Kyle Brodziak / 26-Thomas Vanek
24-Matt Cooke / 56-Erik Haula / 10-Jordan Schroeder
20-Ryan Suter / 25-Jonas Brodin
6-Marco Scandella / 46-Jared Spurgeon
39-Nate Prosser / 55-Matt Dumba
35-Darcy Kuemper (backup)