CHICAGO – One bad-angle overtime goal was enough to grab the attention of the Chicago Blackhawks. Once that shot went in for Jason Zucker, it was all over for the Minnesota Wild.
Chicago advanced to the second round of the NHL playoffs for the first time since 2010 with a 5-1 victory over Minnesota in Game 5 on Thursday night. The Blackhawks got contributions from up and down the roster while overpowering the Wild in the final two nights of the series.
The NHL’s best team during the regular season found another gear after Zucker lifted Minnesota to a 3-2 victory on Sunday. The Blackhawks never trailed again, winning the series 4-1, but coach Joel Quenneville is looking for more.
“I still think we’ve got to be better,” he said. “I’m not doing cartwheels the last two games. I still think there’s another level we’ve got to get to to be more consistent in our game and ratchet it up to playoff pace.”
It’s been the same refrain from the Blackhawks for months. They talked about building for the playoffs while they were setting an NHL record by recording at least one point in the first 24 games of the season. It was all about improvement when they went 11-2-2 in their final 15 games to secure the Presidents’ Trophy awarded to the team with the most points.
So while there were plenty of reasons for optimism following the convincing series against the Wild, the Blackhawks think they can play even better.
“We still feel like we can push the pace a little bit more,” forward Patrick Sharp said. “We’ve got talented players who are going to score goals, but there’s things that we can do that I’m sure Joel will address much better.”
It’s going to be hard for Sharp and goalie Corey Crawford to play any better than they did against Minnesota. Sharp had five goals and an assist, breaking out after he missed much of the season with a shoulder injury. Crawford had his second career playoff shutout in a 3-0 victory in Game 4, and then made 21 stops in the series-clinching win.
The Blackhawks are a whopping 29-1-3 this year with Sharp in the lineup.
“He’s proven in the past that he can score and coming off a couple of injuries late in the year, you know, he was fresh and ready to go once we began,” Quenneville said.
But it wasn’t just Sharp on the attack for Chicago, one of the deepest teams in the NHL. Eight players had at least one goal and 15 recorded at least one point.
“Whether it’s someone who’s in the lineup one night and out the next night, everyone’s gotta step up when they get the chance,” captain Jonathan Toews said. “That’s what it’s going to take to keep moving forward.”
Next up for Chicago is a compelling matchup, no matter which team shows up for Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals.
If Detroit gets by Anaheim in the first round, the Red Wings will face the Blackhawks in the post-season for the first time since 2009. A playoff series between the traditional rivals could deliver quite the boost for the NHL, still trying to rebound from the costly lockout that trimmed this season to 48 games.
If the Red Wings lose to the Ducks, Raffi Torres and San Jose will take on Marian Hossa and Chicago. Torres was playing for Phoenix when he levelled Hossa in the playoffs a year ago, giving him a season-ending concussion. Torres was suspended for the ugly hit, but the Blackhawks surely remember what happened.
“It doesn’t matter who it’s going to be,” Toews said. “It’s going to be a tough opponent. We can expect that much and prepare ourselves as best we can for whatever might come in the second round.”
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap