The Chicago Blackhawks can advance to the Western Conference Semifinals and send the Minnesota Wild home empty-handed with a win in the United Center Thursday night. The Chicago Blackhawks took a 3 – 1 lead Tuesday night in the best-of-seven series in St. Paul.
Chicago has dominated most of the scoresheet through four games in the playoffs, but that’s never the full story. Minnesota has been giving the Madhouse Gang a run for their money at the blue line and in the neutral zone, not to mention shot blocks. The Hawks are averaging 34 shots-on-goal per game, but that number only counts shots that the goaltender actively defends in the crease. In total, the Wild have blocked 64 shots through four games, including 13 from Jared Spurgeon, 10 from Ryan Suter, and 9 from Marco Scandella. Counting those blocks, Chicago has taken 200 total shots through four games.
The defensive capability of Minnesota gives the Wild a fighting chance – Ryan Suter averages over 31 minutes of ice time per game – but the offense is decidedly lacking. Despite the offensive capability of Zach Parise, he has registered only 1 point (1G, 0A) and is a minus six with 17 shots. Even Mikko Koivu, who is without any points, expressed some frustration after a Game 4 shutout loss in the Xcel Energy Center.
“It’s not the first time it’s happened,” said Koivu in response to his lack of production in the series. “You have to be able to find a way to get it to the net and keep creating and believe it’s going to go in.”
The Blackhawks have certainly held on to that mentality, outscoring Minnesota 12 – 6, including two 2-goal games from Patrick Sharp. Patrick Kane assisted two of those goals in Game 2 at the United Center last week and has added three more but no goals. Kane has had a uncanny ability to set up plays nobody else anticipates with passes only the puck receiver sees. His unselfish play in the postseason may be one reason why he temporarily skated with Jonathan Toews in Game 4 in Minnesota. The 24-year-old captain has no points in the series and Kane’s ability to see lanes might have changed that.
Michael Frolik and Marcus Kruger have been phenomenal on the Penalty Kill, being the first line on the ice with a man in the box. Chicago’s PK has gone 15-for-15 in the series, thanks in large part to these two. Frolik notched a shorthanded goal in Game 2 at the United Center, displaying his personal dominance on the PK for Chicago.
“I think, this year, the Penalty Kill was one of our strengths,” said Head Coach Joel Quenneville. “We’re pretty happy about the way it’s been all year, as far as the consistency.”
A tough decision about which goaltender to play in the playoffs was made easy for Joel Quenneville with Ray Emery’s lower body injury, and Corey Crawford has been outstanding in net for the Blackhawks as a result. He recorded a shutout on the road Tuesday night and has a 0.949 save percentage, the best in the league. Quenneville in undoubtedly pleased with his performance and will likely keep Crawford in net even after Emery’s eventual return.
The Blackhawks will have to keep peppering the net with shots and keep their cool composure in the face of a physical and hungry Wild team if they want to move on to the Western Conference Semifinals Thursday night in the United Center. The team can play hard and fast, but they can be better. We may have seen the Wild’s best game of the playoffs, but we certainly have not seen the Hawks’ best game of the postseason.
“We’re getting better one game at a time,” Toews said after Tuesday night’s game. “We know that’s what it’s going to take to finish this series.”
Dave Bolland and Ray Emery are not expected to play for Chicago Thursday night with continuing injuries. There is no word on a possible return date at this point. Darcy Kuemper will likely start in net for Minnesota after Josh Harding experienced an injury in Game 4, but Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo has kept a short leash on his plans for that thus far.
Tonight’s game will begin at 8:30 p.m. at the United Center. Be sure to tweet me your predictions and thoughts!