Blackhawks vs. Wild: Can Chicago Sustain Its Stellar Defense and Goaltending?
Chicago's winning formula was strong goaltending from Corey Crawford and an impressive defensive performance in all three zones. It's one that has yielded fantastic results for the Original Six club, which finished the regular season as the Presidents' Trophy winners.
As the Blackhawks' playoff run progresses, their emphasis on strong defense and consistent goaltending will only increase. Chicago has been stellar in these two areas during the playoffs, but is this success sustainable?
Anyone who has watched this team dominate from day one of the season would be able to tell you that the answer to this question is a resounding yes.
Is Crawford the most important player in Chicago's playoff run?
The play of Crawford has been the most encouraging development for head coach Joel Quenneville this year. After allowing some soft overtime-winning goals in the Blackhawks' first-round playoff series against the Phoenix Coyotes last year, re-establishing his confidence as the team's No. 1 goalie was a top priority for Crawford in this shortened season.
To his credit, Crawford has played the best hockey of his NHL career in 2013 by setting new personal bests in GAA and save percentage. Here's how his stats from this season compared to 2011-12:
Crawford has been just as solid in the playoffs with a 3-1 record, a 1.39 GAA and a .949 save percentage. He has made the important saves in high-pressure, late-game situations to give the Blackhawks a chance to win each game of their series with Minnesota, which is why it's no surprise that Chicago leads all playoff teams with a 1.50 GAA.
However, the most impressive part of his game is the confidence and composure he's displaying in net. Crawford is raising his game when the pressure increases, and he's not giving up the same confidence-deflating goals that hurt the Blackhawks in last year's playoffs.
When he's playing at this level, it makes the job of the defensemen in front of him much easier. Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman didn't make too many moves during the offseason to improve his roster, but the addition of veteran free agent Michal Rozsival was a solid move. He has given Chicago additional blue-line depth and another physical presence for the penalty kill.
The emergence of young defenseman Nick Leddy as a reliable two-way player and the return of Duncan Keith to elite status have also contributed to the Blackhawks' defensive improvement (22nd in GAA in 2011-12 to first in 2013). Keith and Brent Seabrook make up one of the NHL's top shutdown pairings, and because the Blackhawks will have home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs, Quenneville will use this duo quite a bit against the opposing team's top scorers.
One of the main reasons why the Blackhawks will dominate teams defensively in the postseason is because their best forwards play a great two-way game. Captain and No. 1 center Jonathan Toews is arguably the top candidate for the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the league's best defensive forward, while other top-six forwards such as Marian Hossa, Brandon Saad and Patrick Kane have also played well defensively by blocking shots, back-checking and creating turnovers.
Toews' line has completely shut down the Wild's top duo of Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu in this series. These two star forwards have combined for just one goal and zero assists through four games. Not many teams in the postseason have a top-six that plays as well defensively as the Blackhawks, and having a shutdown forward like Toews gives Chicago a real advantage against opponents without a lot of scoring depth.
The biggest improvement the Blackhawks have made from last year is their performance on the penalty kill. They ranked 27th in penalty killing last season, but with strong goaltending and a deeper, more talented blue line, Chicago finished with the third-best PK unit in 2013.
Through the first four games of playoffs, the Blackhawks' penalty kill is a perfect 15-for-15, which ranks first among all 16 playoff teams (no other team is perfect on the PK). Being able to kill penalties and prevent teams from seizing the momentum of a game gives Chicago an important advantage over its opponents.
Even though Chicago was the second-highest scoring team in the NHL this season, the majority of its success has resulted from great goaltending, brilliant defense and an effective penalty kill.
The Blackhawks' performance in all three of these areas during the playoffs has been as good or better than it was in the regular season, so opponents will continue to find it extremely difficult to score enough goals to beat this team four times in a seven-game series.
As a determined group that includes many veterans with something to prove after two consecutive first-round exits, the Blackhawks understand that if their defense and goaltending remain strong, they will lift the Stanley Cup in June.
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