The Chicago Blackhawks advanced to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a win at the United Center Thursday night to put down the Minnesota Wild 4 games to 1. Considering the season that Chicago had, few would be surprised that it only took 5 games for the President’s Trophy winner to advance – but Chicago has certainly not played its best hockey yet.
The Good Stuff: Offense
Patrick Sharp scored 6 points (5G, 1A) through five games and appears to have recovered very well from his shoulder injury that caused him to miss nearly half of the season. But he’s not the only one performing well – the second line is producing some serious opportunities. Michal Handzus has registered 2 assists and Patrick Kane recorded 5 assists in the series, making the second line dangerous. Oh, and speaking of Patrick Kane: he can see dead people.
Okay, well maybe not dead people. But he can see lanes that make the defense look like statues. “He’s got eyes in the back of his head,” as the great Pat Foley remarked on CSNChicago. And he’s just got one of those magnetic personalities.
The third line of Andrew Shaw, Viktor Stalberg, and Bryan Bickell has been phenomenal all season and has lit the lamp at key moments in this series against the Wild. In Game 1, Shaw gave Center Torrey Mitchell a jolt that allowed Johnny Oduya to tap a long pass up the ice that gave Stalberg the opportunity to set up Bickell for the overtime winner. Shaw and Bickell would each register more points to bring the line’s total to 9 points (4G, 5A) through five games.
The “bottom” two lines have been effective all season thanks in large part to the aforementioned, but also to Marcus Kruger and Michael Frolik. Both forwards have become the primary Penalty Kill unit for Chicago and have helped keep it perfect in the postseason. It has been a strong suit of Chicago all season, remaining in the top 5 nearly from the beginning. Frolik established his PK dominance and scored a shorthanded goal in Game 2 at the United Center.
The Good Stuff: Defense
Chicago’s forwards are doing very well. But the defensive focus of the Blackhawks shut down any momentum Minnesota tried to establish in this opening round. Perhaps nobody from the Madhouse Gang played over 40 minutes in any of their games like Minnesota’s Ryan Suter, but Duncan Keith and Johnny Oduya seem to never leave the ice. Both defenseman average about 30 shifts per game and have 7 points combined (2G, 5A).
Niklas Hjalmarsson has incredible speed, vision and grit. He is fully capable of getting back to break up an odd-man rush and bracing for a big hit while still making a clean outlet pass. Nick Leddy has matured nicely and seems to have settled into his spot on the Blackhawks. Watch him carry the puck into the zone when the opponent stops a Blackhawks’ entrance more than once. Dumping and chasing is not always the solution, and Leddy can help break that stream of thought with the finesse of a 10-year veteran.
When asked if he heard his name chanted from about twenty-two thousand fans, Corey Crawford simply laughed, “maybe caught a couple seconds of that.”
Calling his sophomore postseason campaign stellar may be premature. After all, this was only one of (hopefully) four rounds the Hawks need to get through. But so far, he has posted some of the best numbers in the league:
Goals Allowed on Average: 1.32 (1st)
Save Percentage: 0.950 (T-1st)
Wins: 4 (T-1st)
Shutouts: 1 (T-1st)
Crawford has demonstrated confidence, composure and strength this postseason and the Blackhawks will surely be looking to capitalize on his performance thus far.
The Other Side
Alright, so good things are happening. We like that. But what should the Hawks focus on improving?
I’m going to put a nail in the “Hawks need to get more physical if they want to win the Cup” argument right now. It’s simply not true, and it may not benefit Chicago to start hitting more. None of the last four Stanley Cup Champions (including the Blackhawks) have had a significant advantage in hits throughout the postseason. The LA Kings were nearly dead-even with their opponents last season through four series, but that’s as close as it gets.
The Hawks are not a physical team. Kane, Hjalmarsson, Hossa and company are skilled at chipping the puck where it needs to go when a race to the boards begins. It saves players from being injured and it keeps the good guys out of the penalty box. That said, if the opposing defense is more concerned about who is not getting up from the ice after a hit and is crashing the net, there will be more of a focus on Chicago’s lethal offense.
The real focus is getting the puck out of the zone cleanly. If you take a look at each of the Hawks’ losses this season (and even some of those close one point and overtime games), Chicago has struggled to clear the puck to neutral ice and get off for a change. It starts with having a good outlet to pass to, but it finishes with a crisp pass to that outlet. A light tap of the puck won’t get it out. A firm pass to the neutral area will at least allow a line change until the opponent can regroup. Too many tired men on the ice is never good and it begins with failing to clear the puck.
Jonathon Toews and Brandon Saad have been quiet this postseason after an incredible regular season. Toews scored his first point Thursday night in the form of an assist, but he has been off the scoresheet almost exclusively. Of course, Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo is smart enough to know that he needed to shut down that top line and he seemed to be able to do that. Head Coach Joel Quenneville even paired up Patrick Kane with the captain due to his unselfish play and ability to assist goals in this series. Both Toews and Saad will need to register on the scoresheet in the coming weeks if Chicago wants to bring home the second Cup in 4 seasons.
Chicago will play either San Jose, who swept the Vancouver Canucks in four games, or Detroit, who is battling Anaheim and currently sits a game back 3 – 2. For now, Chicago will be watching those games closely. If Detroit brings home two wins and eliminates the Ducks, it will be the final postseason contest for the two Original Six teams as Western Conferences foes. Detroit will move to the Eastern Conference next season due to realignment. If Detroit loses one more game, Chicago will play San Jose.
For now, there’s no reason to speculate or prepare for one team or the other. Chicago is focused on resting and staying sharp until the next series can be determined. So sit back and turn on NBC Sports, CSNBC, NHL Network, or your local national broadcast and brush up on the competition. We’ll be sure to keep you posted even if you don’t.