CHICAGO – It’s been three years since the Chicago Blackhawks hoisted the Stanley Cup, and they haven’t made it past the opening round in the playoffs since that run.
One more win and that changes.
The Blackhawks are on the verge of advancing in the playoffs for the first time since they captured the championship in 2010, with a 3-1 lead over the Minnesota Wild. They can wrap up this first-round series in Game 5 at the United Center on Thursday.
They’re not exactly breathing easy, and they insist the Wild haven’t seen their best shot.
“You look at some teams that just battled their way into the playoffs in the last 10, 15 regular-season games or so, they come right into it,” Jonathan Toews said. “You see the pace. You see the physicality in a lot of those other series. We’re getting better one game at a time, but we need to start bringing that now.”
The Blackhawks set the pace all season, getting off to a record start and capturing the Presidents’ Trophy for leading the league in points. Now, they’re in position to knock off Minnesota after losing to Vancouver and Phoenix in the first round the past two years.
They’ve killed every power play. Their defence has come up big with Corey Crawford playing well in net after letting in some soft goals against the Coyotes last year, and if that’s not enough, consider this.
The Wild’s top two goalies are banged up. Niklas Backstrom was injured warming up before Game 1, thrusting Josh Harding into the lineup.
Now, Harding’s hurt, too. His legs got straddled around the left post when Toews landed on top of him in a collision in the crease in the with about four minutes left in the first period of Game 4 on Tuesday.
He got up gingerly and finished out the period, shaking his left leg several times and testing it with a slow skate behind the net. The Wild went with backup Darcy Kuemper to start the second period, and it’s not clear who will be in goal for them on Thursday.
“We like to keep the other team guessing, so we’re not only going to not tell them who our starting goalie is, we won’t tell them who our backup goalie is,” coach Mike Yeo said. “Really leave them in the dark.”
Yeo would not reveal the extent of Harding’s injury, although he did say the goalie would make the trip to Chicago. Defenceman Clayton Stoner and centre Zenon Konopka remain out with injuries and won’t make the trip.
“It’s desperation time right now,” Wild forward Kyle Brodziak said. “There’s no room for sulking or anything like that.”
The Wild had a chance to tie the series after winning Game 3 in overtime when Jason Zucker scored from a bad angle, but it was a different story in Game 4 on Tuesday. Patrick Sharp scored two goals, Crawford looked good again in goal with 25 saves for his second career post-season shutout and Chicago blocked 26 shots to go up 3-1.
“I think Corey’s a great goaltender,” Patrick Kane said. “He’s a big guy. He takes up a lot of net. He’s even tough to score on in practice. I think you really see him fighting through screens and fighting through traffic to make those saves—not just the first save but the second, third and fourth. He’s been unbelievable through this series. He had a great game last night. It’s almost like it’s routine now, you really expect it from him.”
Many weren’t sure what to expect from the Blackhawks’ goalies when the year began, and it was a similar story for Crawford coming into the playoffs even though he and Ray Emery dominated during the regular season.
There was much debate down the stretch over who should be the No. 1 goalie when the playoffs started. Emery’s injury ended that.
Crawford has been solid in this series with a .949 save percentage after struggling a bit in the playoffs a year ago.
That’s one reason why the defence has held its ground. The forwards have been chipping in, too.
The Blackhawks have also dominated on the penalty kill, with Minnesota going 0 for 15 on the power play in this series. The Wild are the only team without a power-play goal in this post-season.
Chicago, meanwhile, is one win from a second-round matchup with Anaheim or Detroit. Yet, the Blackhawks are not quite ready to exhale.
As good as they’ve been on the penalty kill, the power play remains an issue—as it has been all season. The Blackhawks are just 1 of 11 in this series after ranking 19th during the regular season.
Can they win the Stanley Cup if they don’t improve on the power play?
“I still think we can do it (get better in that area), and by the end of the playoffs, hopefully, we’ll show you guys,” Kane said.
Note: Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said Emery and C Dave Bolland, out with lower body injuries, are “both fine” but are “doubtful” for Game 5.