CHICAGO – Moments before delivering the goal that would nudge the Chicago Blackhawks ahead in the Western Conference semifinals, Jonathan Toews unloaded a hit that resonated nearly as much on Sunday. The captain of the defending Stanley Cup champions followed the Minnesota Wild's Mikael Granlund deep into the offensive zone in pursuit of the puck and sent Granlund into the boards. The Wild center's legs went out from under him and he ended up backside down on the ice. By this point in early the third period of Game 5, the Blackhawks duly recognized there would be no easy out in this series. They'd just have to do things the hard way.
So there was Toews, bouncing Granlund off the glass before grinding out a position next to Minnesota's net. When a shot by Blackhawks winger Patrick Sharp caromed off bodies and a hand and more bodies before finally landing near Toews' feet, the captain battled to flick in a backhander for the game-winner in a 2-1 victory that established a three-games-to-two series lead for Chicago. The upstart Wild may have changed their hotel and locker room stall assignments in order to change their karma after being outscored 9-3 in Games 1 and 2 at the United Center, but the Blackhawks' attitude adjustment prevailed. The Hawks were determined to put more pucks on net and just get after their opponents more. It took a while for them to get going on Sunday, but when they did, they cut through the muck of two straight losses and put themselves on the brink of advancing.
"As a group, we always recognize when we didn't bring the right effort," Toews said. "I didn't think we were flat by any means. But slowly as the game went along we found ways to play better as a five-man unit. As you saw, we started drawing some penalties, started creating some chances, we got more shots and more efforts at the net. That's the way we want to play, that's the way we've been looking to play the last few games. We got back to it a little bit."
During the regular season, Chicago's high-octane attack averaged 33.1 shots per game, good for third in the league. It hadn't recorded more than 22 in any of the first four games against the Wild. The drop was somewhat expected – Minnesota was going to gum up everything from the neutral ice back to its net – but it also was increasingly alarming as the Wild thundered back into the series with a pair of invigorating home wins. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville was left to search for a combination that would create a spark – he returned veteran Kris Versteeg to the lineup for Game 5 and called on center Peter Regin to make his playoff debut – while showing lines during the morning skate on Sunday that were a mere red herring for the reconstituted groups that started later that night. After a meager six-shot first period on Sunday, one imagined Quenneville returning to a laboratory full of overflowing beakers and combustible elements. He indeed juggled everything again to start the second period, most notably returning Sharp to the top line with Toews and Marian Hossa.
That shakeup finally shook the Hawks out of their malaise.
Chicago had eight shots in the first six-plus minutes of the second frame en route to a 28-shot effort overall. More importantly, the Blackhawks remained engaged and continued to press the issue even without a goal as a reward, and it was Regin who delivered on the coach's hunch that put him in the lineup in the first place. He doggedly crashed through the slot and multiple Wild defenders midway through the second period, drawing a hooking penalty on blueliner Jonas Brodin. It set up the power play that led to a Bryan Bickell score, a goal that affirmed that Chicago's plan was working. "Overall, I thought we got to the net more, we shot more pucks at the net," Regin said. "But obviously I tried to get to the net and get by the guys. Everybody across the board tried to get the pick to the net more than we did in the previous games."
Admittedly nervous before his start, Regin said he used visualization techniques to calm himself, to picture what he would do once he got the puck in the middle of the action – as he did before drawing the penalty – so he wouldn't be surprised when it happened for real.
"The mental side – you can do a lot from that," Regin said.
As for the Wild, they failed to capitalize on Chicago's slow start. Their effort seemed fine when the Blackhawks were flinging shots from the perimeter. It was less fine when the Hawks started out-pursuing the Wild to the front of the net. "We had a pretty good start," Wild coach Mike Yeo said. "Then I thought we got a little soft in our game."
Chicago got less cute and gained control of the series again as a result. There was Brandon Saad elbowing Minnesota's Ryan Suter and taking the returning slash. There was Versteeg staring down Wild instigator Matt Cooke near the bench. There was Patrick Kane, of all people, giving a stiff bump to Wild captain Mikko Koivu near center ice just seconds after a whistle blew a play dead. And most of all, there was Toews crunching Granlund against the boards before fighting his way to his 10th career postseason game-winning score. "Just an ugly goal," Toews said, and he and his teammates were only too happy to see it. It was apparent by Sunday that the Blackhawks weren't getting out of this Western Conference semifinal without some bruising – mental or otherwise. "I don't think there's such a thing as frustration getting to us. There are tough moments, and we overcame it and kept playing tonight. Now we're back in a great situation where we can finish this series off. We know it's going to take our best game. We know haven't played it yet, so it's perfect timing."