Depth, experience keys to Blackhawks advancing
|Bill Smith / Chicago Blackhawks|
After consecutive exits from the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the Western Conference Quarterfinals, the Chicago Blackhawks again know what it's like to win a playoff series.
Prior to ending the Minnesota Wild's season in five games with a 5-1 win Thursday at United Center, the Blackhawks' previous experience closing a series was beating the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 6 of the 2010 Stanley Cup Final.
Three years later, Chicago again entered the playoffs as favorites after winning the Presidents' Trophy and the Blackhawks are vastly different from the team that lost a year ago in the first round to the Phoenix Coyotes. The roster, however, largely is the same, right down to the goaltending tandem of Corey Crawford and Ray Emery.
So what's different a year later that allowed the Blackhawks to advance to the conference semifinals? Here are five reasons the Blackhawks still have their sights set on the Cup:
1. Defense really does win games
Like they did while recording points in 24 straight games to start the season, the Blackhawks used a strong defensive effort in front of Crawford to frustrate Minnesota. Wild captain Mikko Koivu didn't record a single point and finished with a minus-6 rating for the series, while linemate Zach Parise scored one goal but had a minus-7 rating.
Chicago has an abundance of highly-skilled forwards and offensive-minded defensemen, but the Blackhawks can put the clamps on teams. Their forwards backchecked hard, while their defensemen filled shooting lanes and kept tight gaps against the Wild.
Chicago also packed it in on the penalty kill, somewhat unexpectedly, to clog shooting lanes. Combined with Crawford's play in net, the strategy worked to perfection. Minnesota went 0-for-17 on the power play, including 0-for-6 in a critical Game 4 loss at home.
2. In a word … goaltending
Crawford and Emery were seen as liabilities for the Blackhawks prior to the season, but both had outstanding seasons splitting time and Crawford continued it against the Wild.
Emery missed the series with a lower-body injury, but even when he returns it will be hard to supplant Crawford if he keeps playing like he did against the Wild, allowing just seven goals in five games.
"Their goalie was excellent the entire series," Minnesota coach Mike Yeo said after Game 5. "I thought he was outstanding all series long. There's a reason why they had the season that they did."
Meanwhile, Minnesota had tough luck with its goaltending. Josh Harding did yeoman's work in net for the Wild. He subbed for injured starter Niklas Backstrom (sports hernia), who got hurt in warm-ups prior to Game 1 and didn't play in the series. Harding got hurt late in the first period of Game 4 but started Game 5 before being replaced by Darcy Kuemper down 3-0 early in the second.
3. Pick your poison
Prior to the final game in the series, Chicago's top line of Brandon Saad, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa nearly had been shut out. Hossa -- who scored twice in Game 5 -- had one goal and one assist and neither involved assists by Toews or Saad.
Kane, meanwhile, had five assists in the series but didn't score. The Blackhawks still outscored the Wild 17-7 and lost just once, by a 3-2 margin, in Game 3. How'd they do it?
They got scoring from all four lines and their back end in a balanced attack. Patrick Sharp found his scoring touch with five goals, and the Wild never found an answer for Chicago's effective third line of Bryan Bickell (three goals, one assist), Andrew Shaw (one goal, three assists) and Viktor Stalberg (one assist, plus-2 rating). The Blackhawks also got three goals and two assists combined from fourth-liners Marcus Kruger and Michael Frolik.
4. Tons of talent is a nice luxury
Despite Minnesota's big free-agent coups last summer that saw them land Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter, the Blackhawks had more top-notch firepower. Minnesota learned the hard way that even if you shut down a couple of highly-skilled players, there is plenty of "star power" in reserve to win games.
Sharp, Hossa, Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook all can cut a team to ribbons if they get hot, and that's on top of the aforementioned depth in the role-player ranks. The Wild played without injured forward Dany Heatley and Backstrom, while Jason Pominville missed the first three games with an upper-body injury.
5. Experience matters
Minnesota came into the series with 11 players who didn't have any experience in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and Harding never had made a playoff start. Wild coach Mike Yeo also was in his first postseason series as an NHL coach.
Meanwhile, Chicago had nine players who chipped in during the 2010 Stanley Cup run. They also had nobody on the roster getting their first taste of the postseason this year. Coach Joel Quenneville now is 76-68 in the playoffs as a coach, with a championship ring in his possession from 2010.
All of it mattered. The Blackhawks advanced despite feeling there's plenty of room to improve, while Minnesota chalked it up as needed playoff experience for the future.