It's on to NHL Western Conference semifinals for the Chicago Blackhawks, who advanced after a 5-1 win over the Minnesota Wild on Thursday night in Chicago.
CHICAGO—On the surface, one might say Chicago Blackhawks scoring stalwarts Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane struggled during the opening round of the NHL Western Conference Quarterfinals.
While Kane and Toews led the team in scoring during the lockout-shortened regular season with 23 goals apiece, neither player scored a goal in the five-game series against the Minnesota Wild, which Chicago clinched Thursday night with a 5-1 win.
But a lack of goal scoring by the Hawks' most proficient scorers wasn't necessarily a bad thing, as Kane assisted in six goals in the series, while Toews, even though he recorded just two assists (both in Thursday's game), played more of a defensive role than his usual offensive specialty.
"I think this series we could probably talk about our defense more than anybody as far as getting the attention that's deserved, how well they played," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said after Thursday's game.
"Different nights, some guys score and some lines are more productive offensively, but at the end of the day, that consistency was one of our strengths this year."
That consistency and balanced scoring vs. the Wild showcased many of the Blackhawks role players or less-regular scorers.
As a result, players like Patrick Sharp (five goals, including the final one in Thursday's game), Bryan Bickell (three goals), Michael Frolik (two goals), Duncan Keith (one goal) and Johnny Oduya (one goal) have stepped up to lead the team in putting the puck in the net.
"Different nights, some guys score and some lines are more productive offensively, but that at the end of the day, that consistency was one of our strengths this year," Quenneville said of his team's balanced scoring attack.
And on Thursday, NHL star Marian Hossa was added to the mix. Even though Hossa is a first-line stalwart alongside Toews, he tallied two goals in the series clincher to give him three first-round goals.
"Having him in your lineup all year long and what he brings to your team game and special teams, his quality of play and intelligence on the ice is something that's huge for us and reflects what we're looking for game in and game out," Quenneville said.
Sharp has been the biggest surprise. Not only did he come into the playoffs after suffering a lengthy layoff due to a shoulder injury late in the regular season, he scored just six goals in 28 games.
"I felt like early in the series I was trying to do things away from the puck to get involved and to play Joel's system the best way I can," Sharp said. "When you do that, you're not thinking about handling the puck or scoring, it seems to find you. If you float around out there thinking you're going to score goals, not much usually gets done.
"It's across the board, contributions offensively from everybody. We're going to get that, we've got some skilled players here. We're going to get timely goals and be able to score. It's our team game away from the puck I think we can improve, but at the end of the day, this series is over and we can feel good about moving on, but I'm sure Joel will have some things for us to get better at."
Likewise for Bickell, who had just nine goals in the regular season, and Frolik, who tallied just three times in the regular season.
"That's the kind of team we have," Sharp said. "Any given night, someone's scoring and helping us out in a different way to win the game, so we've never relied on one or two players to carry the load. It’s a full team effort and those guys will say that themselves."
The success of Blackhawks role players in the Wild series even stretched to goalie. Coming into the opening playoff round, Ray Emery was pegged to start in the net. But a lower body injury that occurred in the final game of the regular season left Emery sidelined throughout the first playoff round.
Corey Crawford stepped up strong to fill Emery's shoes, winning four of the five games in the series, and proved to be a formidable foe that the Wild just could not overcome.
Crawford gave up just seven goals in the five games, while the combination of Wild goalies Josh Harding (filling in for injured Niklas Backstrom) and Darcy Kuemper combined to yield 13 goals to the Blackhawks.
"What can I say about Corey," Toews said. "He was unbelievable. Even though there were a couple games there where it felt like we were going to the (penalty) box every other minute, and he was our best penalty killer, he was making big stop after big stop."
With such balanced scoring, the Blackhawks remain the most dangerous team in the NHL as the playoffs head to the second round.
Chicago will likely face either San Jose or arch rival Detroit, which needs to rebound from a 3-2 series deficit vs. Anaheim if it's to face the Blackhawks in what would be the final conference playoff series between both teams, as the Red Wings move to the Eastern Conference next season.
"It doesn't matter who it's going to be," Toews said. "It's going to be a tough opponent, so we can expect that much and prepare ourselves the best we can for whatever might come in the second round."
All quotes were obtained firsthand by the writer.
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