Even though the box score would indicate the opposite, the Blackhawks did not play anywhere near their best hockey in this series against an inferior Wild team with a lot of young and inexperienced players.
Tracey Myers @TramyersCSN
Q: "I’m not doing cartwheels over the last two games. There’s another level we need to get to…" #Blackhawks5/10/2013, 4:55:51 AM
We saw a similar situation during the 2009-10 playoffs when the Blackhawks failed to play at their highest level in the first round against the Nashville Predators, but based on their superior skill and depth, they were able to win the series in six games.
Realizing they needed to find another gear to accomplish their goals, the Blackhawks woke up and finished the playoffs with a 12-4 record that culminated with the Stanley Cup.
For the Blackhawks to celebrate the 2013 season in the same fashion they did two years ago, this team must follow the blueprint that the 2010 squad used.
What does that blueprint look like? Let's find out.
A Productive First Line Led by Jonathan Toews
The offensive production from the team's first line of captain Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Brandon Saad needs to be better in the Western Conference Semifinals.
Through the first four games of the first round, Hossa was the only member of this line with a point.
"It's easy to get frustrated in situations like this," said Toews before Thursday's game (per CSN Chicago) when asked about his line's performance in the first round.
"At this point we all understand that we're working hard for quality scoring chances...When we get our chances we have to find a way to capitalize on them. As a line with [Hossa], [Saad] and myself we know that once one goes in we will get that confidence that they will all go in again."
This trio played its best game of the playoffs on Thursday with six points, including two goals scored by Hossa and two assists from Toews.
The next challenge for this line is to generate offense and capitalize on scoring chances consistently, and judging by their past success in the playoffs, there's no reason to think Toews and Hossa will fail to be more productive.
In the Blackhawks' second-round series against the Vancouver Canucks in 2010, Toews was almost unstoppable with 12 points in six games. The captain led the team in scoring during its championship run two years ago, and Chicago will once again need his offensive production to reach the Western Conference Finals.
After a lackluster performance offensively in this year's first-round series, Toews will be highly motivated to give his team a little more scoring in round two, especially since he played at a point-per-game level for the first time in his career during the regular season.
Effective and Consistent Special Teams
The Blackhawks' penalty kill was great in 2010 when it finished with the fourth-best percentage among all 16 teams. The team's penalty kill has been even better this season as the only unit that is still perfect (17-for-17).
On Wednesday, Toews talked about the importance of having a strong penalty kill (per CSN Chicago):
"You need to have a great goaltender to kill off as many penalties as we have in [the first round], [Crawford] been doing his job as good as he possibly can...We have some guys that are stepping in front of shots, forwards especially, normally our [defense] tend to take that responsibility for the most part but everyone is chipping in. We understand that it's a very important part to winning this series and winning games."
Special teams was a major weakness for this team last season (27th in NHL), and its improvement in this area of the game is one of main reasons why Chicago dominated opponents in the regular season.
Since head coach Joel Quenneville has so many forwards and defenseman capable of excelling on the penalty kill, he doesn't have to tire his best players like Toews by playing them a lot on special teams in addition to their normal 17-23 minutes of even strength ice time. If the Blackhawks continue to kill penalties with great consistency, much like they did in 2010, it's going to be incredibly difficult for opposing teams to win the special teams battle.
As for the power play, this is certainly an area that must be more effective. Chicago has scored just one time in 11 opportunities with the man advantage, and only Minnesota has fewer success on the power play among playoff teams.
The Blackhawks needed a good power play in 2010 since their goaltending wasn't as good as it is right now, but the team's lack of success with the man advantage in this year's playoffs is still a concern. Chicago doesn't need a dominant power play to win the Stanley Cup, but failing to create enough quality scoring chances is unacceptable.
Scoring Depth is Key
How much depth does this Chicago team have?
Toews and Kane didn't score a single goal in the first round, yet the Blackhawks still scored 3.4 goals per game, which was higher than their season average (3.1 goals/game). Of the 13 forwards that played in the first-round series versus the Wild, only Daniel Carcillo and Brandon Bollig failed to tally a point.
Chicago's bottom-six forwards, including Michael Frolik (three points), Bryan Bickell (four points), and Andrew Shaw (four points), played a major role in the team's offensive success in the first round.
Getting this amount of production from role players is important for the Blackhawks because teams will put so much effort into shutting down their top-six. If players like Toews, Kane, Hossa and Patrick Sharp struggle in the later rounds, Chicago will need its bottom-six to generate more offense than normal, just like it did against Minnesota.
The 2010 team had seven forwards that finished the playoffs with more than 10 points, and the Blackhawks will need this same level of production to win another title, especially from a Western Conference that is full of teams with quality goaltending.
The Detroit Red Wings and the San Jose Sharks are the two most likely second-round opponents for the Blackhawks, and both of them play well defensively, kill penalties consistently and have great goaltending. Without enough scoring depth, Chicago would risk being upset by either one of these teams, both of which have plenty of playoff experience.
Good Goaltending with Timely Saves
Crawford has been outstanding in the playoffs thus far, which will give the Blackhawks a ton of confidence in the later rounds because goaltending has been a bit of a weakness for this team since it last won the Cup.
During that championship run, Blackhawks goaltender Antti Niemi (currently of the Sharks) gave the team a reliable presence in net.
Niemi is one of two goaltenders since the 2004-05 lockout to win a Cup with a GAA above 2.20 and a save percentage below .915, but to his credit, he made the important saves late in third periods and overtimes that kept the Blackhawks from losing close games. Crawford has done the same throughout this shortened season, which is why Chicago is 20-3-6 in one-goal games.
Unlike last season, Crawford has a ton of confidence at the end of the first round. His teammates believe in him and earning his first ever playoff series win will relieve a bit off the pressure he's under in this postseason.
Just like two years ago, the Blackhawks are getting good goaltending in the postseason when they need it most. The difference is that Crawford could realistically play at a level that makes him a top candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP if Chicago wins the Cup. He's currently leading the playoffs in save percentage and GAA.
Dominant Road Record
The Blackhawks did not dominate opponents at home during their championship run two years ago, but this lack of success at the United Center didn't prevent the team from being successful because it went 9-2-1 on the road.
Luckily for the Blackhawks, they will have home-ice advantage in all four rounds as Presidents' Trophy winners. But for this team to win another Stanley Cup, it will have to play well away from home.
This shouldn't be a problem for Chicago since it had the best road record in the league (18-4-2) during the regular season, and was one of only two teams with more than 15 road wins (Pittsburgh was the other).
With a veteran group of players that understands the importance of winning on the road in the playoffs, the Blackhawks' success away from home will continue and make them the most difficult team to beat on the road to the 2013 Stanley Cup Final.