CHICAGO – Marian Hossa and the Chicago Blackhawks were well aware they’d been playoff underachievers since they captured the Stanley Cup in 2010.
Now, they’re eyeing another championship. And they just took an important step toward it.
Hossa scored twice to back a strong effort by goalie Corey Crawford, and Chicago beat the Minnesota Wild 5-1 Thursday night to win the first-round playoff series 4-1.
The Blackhawks will face either San Jose or Detroit, if the Red Wings get past Anaheim, in the next round.
“We knew we hadn’t done it in two years,” Hossa said. “Minnesota, they still have a great team and are missing some players. We found a way. Now we get ready for the next round.”
The way the Blackhawks have dominated, anything less than a trip to the Stanley Cup finals would be a disappointment for them.
They got off to a record start and captured the Presidents’ Trophy for finishing with more points than any other team. Now, they’re eyeing the biggest prize of all. And after bowing out in the first round the past two years, they sure are looking good.
Even so, coach Joel Quenneville insisted they need to step it up a notch.
“It’s not the regular season,” he said. “There’s another appetite that we’ve got to get as well. I don’t think we should be happy where we’re at with our play. Let’s get angry as we go along here.”
Hossa scored off a feed from Jonathan Toews late in the first period. Marcus Kruger made it 2-0 with a wraparound early in the second, and Hossa chased the Wild’s Josh Harding when he knocked in a rebound minutes later.
Then, after Torrey Mitchell scored for Minnesota, Chicago’s Andrew Shaw scored against Darcy Kuemper. Patrick Sharp added his fifth goal of the series early in the third period, and that was more than enough for Crawford.
Coming off his second career playoff shutout, he saved 21 shots, and his performance in this series went a long way toward winning over a fan base wondering if he had the makeup to succeed in the post-season. After all, he let in some bad goals against Phoenix a year ago.
“I’m not the only guy in the league that’s given up soft goals in the playoffs,” Crawford said. “You guys like to keep telling me about it, but it’s something you’re trying to learn from and trying to make yourself better from it.”
The Blackhawks became the third team to advance in this post-season, along with San Jose and Ottawa. They also bucked a recent trend of early exits for Presidents’ Trophy winners.
The team with the most regular-season points had been eliminated in the first round in three of the previous four years. The Wild were hoping to replicate what the Los Angeles Kings did last year and win the Stanley Cup as the eighth seed, but the Blackhawks simply had too much skill, speed and depth.
The Wild were also short-handed after losing one of their top scorers in Dany Heatley to season-ending left shoulder surgery late in the season. They also had to get by without goalie Niklas Backstrom after he suffered a leg injury in warm-ups before Game 1.
That forced the Wild to go with Harding, who played in just five games during the regular season after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis last summer.
“It was a kind of a curveball there, but I thought Josh played very well. I was very happy for him and way that he handled everything,” the Wild’s Matt Cullen said.
Harding also got banged up in this series. He left Game 4 after a collision with Toews in which his legs got straddled around the left goal post, and he wasn’t sharp in this one, allowing three goals on 18 shots even though he was deemed well enough to start.
Coach Mike Yeo turned to Kuemper after Hossa’s second goal. He also insisted the injury in Game 4 wasn’t a factor in Harding’s performance in this one.
“It wasn’t,” Yeo said. “I don’t want to pin this loss on Josh, either. Credit them and their team.”
There was also a question about Yeo’s job security after this loss. The Wild were widely considered Stanley Cup contenders after they gave free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter identical 13-year, $98 million contracts last summer. But they never quite lived up to expectations.
“I can’t answer that,” Yeo said. “All I can say is if you want to look at it objectively, statistically, if you really want to look at it properly, then there’ve been a lot of improvements in our organization and our team. I feel that we’re going in the right direction.”
For a moment, the Wild looked like they might get back into this one.
Moments after Minnesota’s Jared Spurgeon hit the right post, Mitchell ripped a one-timer past Crawford midway through the second period. But Shaw answered 35 seconds later with his first career playoff goal when he swept the puck in from a bad angle just to the right of the net, making it 4-1.
As for Crawford, there was some debate in Chicago over whether he or Ray Emery should be the No. 1 goalie in the playoffs. Both were terrific during the regular season. Emery’s lower body injury ended the discussion, and Crawford was nothing but solid in this series.
“He’s making saves that he needs to make and he’s making saves that he shouldn’t be making,” Sharp said. “When he does that, it breeds confidence throughout the lineup and it filters through everybody.”
He even had the fans chanting his name at several points. For example, when Crawford stopped a routine shot by Jason Pominville from the wing and scrambled back toward the middle of the net for a neat pad save against Mikko Koivu on the rebound. That foiled another power play by the Wild after they went 0 for 15 in the first four games.
“I definitely heard (the chants),” Crawford said. “It’s nice. It was a good feeling. They’ve been hard on me at times this year, obviously, but that’s a part of it. They want the best. They expect us to be at our best. It’s only fair.”
Notes: Blackhawks C Dave Bolland and Emery remain sidelined by lower body injuries, although Quenneville said they’re “real close.” Bolland said it’s 50-50 he would have been able to play if “it was do or die” for the Blackhawks, but he expects to be ready in the next round. … Quenneville moved ahead of Mike Keenan and took sole possession of second place on the Blackhawks’ playoff wins list with 34. Billy Reay is the club record-holder with 57 from 1963-77.