CHICAGO – The Chicago Blackhawks are through to the second round of the postseason, an ending that stood in stark contrast to the beginning of things Saturday, when it appeared they were diving helmet-first into a trash chute.
“I thought we were horrible to start the game,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “Absolutely dreadful.”
So much can change in a playoff game, of course, such as the identity of a goaltender and the stars on the roster going supernova. This was the underpinning for a 4-3 win over the Nashville Predators in Game 6 at the United Center, one that made it a 4-2 series win for the hosts.
Here are three thoughts on how Chicago vaulted into the Western Conference semifinals:
1. The Blackhawks’ core group was at its best Saturday, and its play drove the team in the series as a whole
“If you want to get anywhere at this level,” captain Jonathan Toews said, “I think your best players have to be your best players.” They made themselves easily identifiable in Game 6. Duncan Keith scored the game-winner late in the third period after Chicago applied an insane amount of pressure in the Nashville zone–“Might have been our best shift all year long,” Quenneville said–and he was assisted by Toews on the blast from the point.
That made it a combined 10 points on the night among four of the team’s superstars, Keith, Toews and the Patricks, Sharp and Kane. Add Marian Hossa and Brent Seabrook to the mix, and those six players accounted for 36 points across the six games against Nashville. The reality for the rest of the league is this: The Blackhawks do not play at an exceptionally high level every night. But when those stars on the roster are motivated to take control of a game, there is no more formidably talented bunch anywhere in the NHL.
“A lot of us pride ourselves on stepping up in these big games,” said Kane, whose snipe after a face-off win made it a 3-3 game after a wild first period, a score that undermined the momentum Nashville built early. “Whether it’s scoring or not, we try to be as excited as possible to play the game. Whatever comes of it, if it’s goals, if it’s good defensive plays, if it’s nice passes, whatever it may be, all of us are ready to play in these situations.”
No one perhaps moreso than Keith, the redoubtable defenseman who is an early Conn Smythe candidate after piling up two goals and seven points and an incredible amount of minutes logged against Nashville. “That was probably one of the better games I’ve seen him play,” Chicago goalie Corey Crawford said. The Norris Trophy winner stickhandled like Kane on two occasions to open up prime scoring chances against Predators goalie Pekka Rinne, before the puck found its way to his blade for a seeing-eye game-winner with a little less than four minutes to play. It was his fourth career game-winning playoff goal, and his second of the series.
“I had some time, I tried to find a lane,” Keith said. “Luckily it went in.”
Funny how frequently that happens for the Blackhawks’ big guns.
2. As ever, the small things matter
Nashville concocted the precise start it needed to survive into a Game 7–it had leads of 2-0 and 3-1–but all the toil came crumbling down off one tiny mistake. Across the series, Nashville managed to play at a high level without its captain and top defenseman in the injured Shea Weber and, for three games in the middle of the series, without productive center Mike Fisher. And one flub upended it all. Predators winger Viktor Stalberg simply couldn’t clear the puck out of the offensive zone given the chance late in the final period, and that jumpstarted the sequence that led to Keith’s deciding score.
3. Goaltender uncertainty somehow trumps goaltender certainty
Nashville’s Rinne is the Vezina Trophy finalist, and yet it is the team that twice switched goalies in this series that emerges to skate another day. Scott Darling helped resuscitate the Blackhawks when he took over for Crawford in Game 2, and then Crawford returned after Nashville peppered Darling with three goals on 12 shots to start Game 6.
On closer inspection, it was less about who was minding the net than all the space in front of it. Chicago’s blue line corps was borderline atrocious early, offering no help to the rookie in the crease. Quenneville’s move to Crawford had the desired effect of a slap in the face to his club; the Blackhawks put together a much more solid game in front of the net to stanch the bleeding. When the second period had ended, Crawford had manned the net for 28 minutes and change in Game 6, and he still hadn’t faced as many shots as Darling had in the first 11-plus minutes. It was 12 shots against for Darling and nine shots against Crawford at that point.
“When I went in, our team completely took over, I think,” Crawford said, allowing that he heard the “Cor-ey, Cor-ey!” chants that followed some big third-period saves. It should be Crawford’s job again when the Blackhawks meet up with St. Louis or Minnesota in the next round, but apparently, and somewhat ironically for a hockey postseason, it might not matter.