ST. PAUL, Minn. -- It's going to take something special to knock the Chicago Blackhawks off their pedestal.
The Minnesota Wild gave it a serious go in the Western Conference Second Round, but lost in six games. They were eliminated on the cruelest possible bounce of the puck almost halfway through the first overtime of a game they had dominated in virtually every conceivable metric.
Patrick Kane roofed an unexpected and unexplainable carom off one of the stanchions that hold the protective glass in place to give the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks a 2-1 victory in Game 6 on Tuesday. Their reward is a berth in the Western Conference Final against either the Anaheim Ducks or the Los Angeles Kings.
While Chicago contemplates what it will take to advance to a third Stanley Cup Final since 2010, the Wild are left with the pain of pondering what could have been.
They clawed their way back into this series with a pair of dominant wins at Xcel Energy Center in Games 3 and 4 and believed they were on the right path even after Chicago captain Jonathan Toews ripped their hearts out with the winning goal in the third period of Game 5, the difference in another 2-1 decision.
Minnesota used its home-ice advantage throughout Game 6, looking like the better team for long stretches as it sought the victory necessary to push this series to Game 7. They were closest in a dominant second period in which they tied the score but couldn't break through and take the lead. Chicago goalie Corey Crawford, often maligned as the weak link on a team filled with superstar forwards, made 13 saves, many of them spectacular, in the middle period to send the game into the second intermission deadlocked at 1-1.
The Blackhawks survived all the fury the Wild could muster, then scored on a fortunate bounce. Sometimes that is what champions do.
"I didn't see that happening," Minnesota coach Mike Yeo said approximately 30 minutes after his team's season ended. "I felt like this was a game we were going to win. I know that's a great team, and congratulations to the Blackhawks; they're probably as close to a dynasty as you can have right now, and they're still building on it."
"But we thought we were going win."
That's the thing about these Blackhawks. The other team always feels like it is going to win, but is usually in the handshake line at the end of a series wondering what happened as the Blackhawks celebrate another validation of what they have become as a franchise during the past half-decade.
"I think you're always going to have to face some moments where some people on the outside maybe doubt what you're capable of as a team, but in the locker room you never have that doubt and you never let it creep in," Toews said. "You keep believing in what you can do and what you do well as a team."
The Chicago captain pointed to his team's rally from a 3-1 series deficit against the Detroit Red Wings in the second round of last year's playoffs as an example. Then there was the Game 6 rally against the Boston Bruins in the Final last spring in which the Blackhawks snatched the Stanley Cup from the jaws of defeat with two goals in 17 seconds to silence a rocking TD Garden.
Now they can add outlasting the Wild to that ledger.
"That was a pretty exciting feeling when that one went in," Crawford said of Kane's game-winner. "A little relief, too, to get this thing finished. That was a tough team. I mean, they played really hard in this building; in Chicago, too. They kept coming at us; a tough series, a really tough series. I don't know, we just have that confidence, though, going into overtime, felt like we were going to get it done."
The Blackhawks have that confidence because they have proven game-breakers dotted throughout the roster. Kane has four overtime goals in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, a number topped only by three players and equal to the number scored by the legendary Wayne Gretzky and Jaromir Jagr, among others. Toews is constantly "Johnny on the spot" for this club. Marian Hossa is the cagey veteran capable of scoring at any time. Others have stepped in when necessary; on Tuesday, Kris Versteeg scored the night's first goal two games after being scratched for ineffective play.
That's the way it is with the Blackhawks. They believe they are the best and dare anybody to prove otherwise.
"It's clearly a great group of guys," Toews said. "We want to play for each other. We want to win. That's all that matters really. It's a lot of fun when we work as hard as we can. We faced a little bit of adversity, and I think it means so much more when you succeed and you come out of those situations. It's exciting. It's a good feeling right now. We have to keep that feeling going."
Each time Chicago has wiggled its way out of trouble reinforces the belief that it's capable of doing whatever is necessary to be successful in the playoffs. That confidence is often the difference when an opposing team thinks it has the recipe to unseat the champs. Just ask the Wild.
"We have to think about those experiences, think about those situations when we find ourselves in tough spots," Toews said of his team's legacy of recent successes. "I think that's what makes us a tough team to beat."
Author: Shawn Roarke | Director, Editorial
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