CHICAGO – The Chicago Blackhawks locked up the Central division. Now, they have their sights set on wrapping up the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs.
Brandon Saad scored in the fifth round of the shootout, after Jonathan Toews tied the game late in regulation, and the Blackhawks clinched the Central title with a 3-2 victory over the Detroit Red Wings on Friday night.
With St. Louis losing to Columbus earlier Friday, the Blackhawks claimed the division crown for the first time since 2010 when they won the Stanley Cup.
Chicago also increased its lead to seven points over Anaheim in the race for the top seed in the West, but what the Blackhawks really want is home-ice advantage throughout the post-season.
They lead the East-leading Pittsburgh Penguins by four points.
“This is a great building to play in,” goalie Corey Crawford said. “There’s a lot of energy when we play here. We want to play the majority of our games here in the playoffs.”
The energy certainly was there on Friday, and with a packed arena, the Blackhawks gave their fans plenty to cheer about.
The shootout was tied 1-1 when Saad beat Jimmy Howard with a backhand shot. Corey Crawford then stopped Johan Franzen, sealing the win and giving the Blackhawks a four-game season sweep over Detroit.
The Blackhawks were trailing 2-1 when Howard made a big pad save on Michael Frolik in the closing minutes of regulation.
The puck ended up at the left point, and Johnny Oduya’s shot hit traffic in front. Toews then fired in the loose puck for his 20th goal, tying it with 2:57 left.
Chicago then had a 2-on-1 rush, but Bryan Bickell’s shot with about 50 seconds remaining hit the left post.
The Blackhawks had a chance late in overtime when Viktor Stalberg sprinted down the right wing and tried to centre the puck to Patrick Kane. The puck appeared to hit a Detroit defender, and Howard swept it aside.
“When you have the confidence to be able to come back in games like this, that’s a huge thing going into the playoffs,” Toews said.
Whether the Red Wings will get there remains to be seen. They are eighth in the West and are fighting to make the post-season for the 22nd straight season. It is an unusual spot for a franchise that has won four Stanley Cup titles during this run.
“To me, you know, strange is living in the past,” coach Mike Babcock said. “You guys are talking about other teams. They wear the same sweaters, but other teams. You are what you are. This is what we’ve earned this year, and this is what our team is.”
What they are is a team that is struggling to score goals. They have netted two or fewer in seven of eight games.
“(The Blackhawks) tied it up late there in the third,” Red Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg said. “After that it was kind of like a tight game all the way to the shootout. Unfortunately we couldn’t score more than they did.”
Stalberg beat Howard with a wraparound shot early in the second period. Two quick goals by Franzen and Cory Emmerton late in the period gave Detroit a 2-1 lead, but the Blackhawks answered down the stretch, winning their final game against the Red Wings as division foes.
The teams have played 725 times, more than any other two NHL teams, but the rivalry between the Original Six franchises will have a different look next season because Detroit is headed to the Eastern Conference. The teams will go from playing six times per season to just twice.
The Blackhawks pounded the Red Wings 7-1 late last month, but the first two meetings were close, with Chicago winning 2-1 each time. This was along those lines.
Both goalies were solid, with Howard making 26 saves through overtime. Crawford stopped 27 for the Blackhawks.
It isn’t clear who will be the No. 1 goalie for Chicago in the playoffs. Ray Emery had won the previous three games, but Crawford has started every matchup against Detroit. Given his success against the Red Wings, it wasn’t a big surprise that he got the call in this one.
NOTES: Blackhawks D Duncan Keith played in his 600th game, and D Niklas Hjalmarsson played in his 300th. … Blackhawks F Dave Bolland has been practicing, but remained sidelined by a lower body injury. … The Red Wings were without forwards Darren Helm (back) and Mikael Samuelsson (upper body). … F Drew LeBlanc of St. Cloud State agreed to a one-year contract with the Blackhawks on the same day he won the Hobey Baker Award as the nation’s top college player.