The Blackhawks are on to the Western Conference finals. Chicago withstood a furious comeback by the Wild at the end of Thursday's Game 4, holding on for a 4–3 win and a sweep of the series.
The Blackhawks completed a second-round sweep of the Wild with a bonkers 4–3 victory on Thursday, holding on as Minnesota staged a furious rally at the end. The Wild scored with 2:18 and 1:27 left to play, but Marian Hossa's shorthanded empty-netter about a minute before the Wild's first goal proved to be the difference for Chicago.
Three things we learned after watching the Blackhawks win Game 4:
1. Chicago is starting to look like a Stanley Cup favorite
The Blackhawks were clearly the better team in this series. Minnesota, a very good team in its own right, played great in Game 3 on Tuesday, but still lost 1–0. On Thursday night, the Wild played desperate, scrapping all the way to the final horn and pulling their goalie with abandon. It almost worked. In the end, however, the best team won. In four games, Minnesota, which never led in the series, scored seven goals, and four of them came with an extra skater on the ice. At even strength, Chicago was just too good.
The Wild seemed to be a bit demoralized through the early going in Game 4, struggling to keep possession and rarely making Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford work hard. But the game changed when, with Chicago leading 2–0, Minnesota center Erik Haula scored off a face-off early in the second period. The Wild suddenly had some jump, and the home crowd, so quiet for so long, was suddenly into the game.
Minnesota coach Mike Yeo was aggressive about pulling goalie Devan Dubnyk late in the game with his team down 3–1. The Blackhawks took a penalty with about four minutes left and Dubnyk came off the ice soon after. Yes, Marian Hossa scored an empty-netter early in the penalty kill, but that doesn’t mean that Yeo hadn’t made the right call. The Minnesota comeback would never have happened without Yeo’s aggressiveness.
With the victory, Chicago advanced to the conference finals for the fifth time in the last seven seasons. The Blackhawks will probably play the Ducks, who have looked awfully good while jumping out to a 2–1 lead in their second-round matchup against the Flames. The winner of a series between Chicago and Anaheim would be the likely favorite to hoist the Stanley Cup next month.
2. The Blackhawks’ bench got even shorter
Early in the second period, Chicago defenseman Michal Rozsival went down with an ugly left leg injury, which he suffered while lunging awkwardly for a puck that had been hoisted into the air. He looked awful when he was being helped off the ice by teammates Duncan Keith and Brad Richards, and at a postgame press conference Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said the injury did not look good.
During an interview in the second period with Pierre McGuire, NBCSN’s on-ice analyst, Quenneville briefly discussed Rozsival’s injury and admitted that his team primarily leaned on four blueliners. Those four are Keith, Brent Seabrook, Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson. Chicago’s fifth and sixth blueliners (in terms of average time on ice) are Rozsival and Kimmo Timonen.
With Rozsival out, the 40-year-old Timonen got more work, though not a lot. Through the first three games of the series, his ice time had decreased from 10:49 to 6:57 to 5:44. On Thursday night, he played 8:25, but none during crunch time toward the end of the game when the Wild were making their crazy comeback. Keith was on ice for 29:39, more than any other skater and just ahead of Minnesota defenseman Ryan Suter, who went 29:37 and never seemed to be off the ice as the game neared the end. None of Chicago’s top four defensemen skated fewer than 22 minutes. It’s a situation Quenneville is going to have to monitor closely. This was an important sweep. The Blackhawks will get the maximum amount of time off before the conference finals begin—and they’ll need it.
Before this season, when he played 11:59 a game, Timonen hadn’t averaged fewer than 20 minutes of ice time since he was a rookie with the Predators in 1998–99. Much of that can be attributed to the fact that Timonen didn’t play his first game this season until March 2, three days after he was traded to Chicago by the Flyers. Timonen had been sidelined last August by blood clots in his lungs and his right leg. He has had to play his way into shape and it’s obvious that he isn’t where he needs to be yet.
3. Crawford looks just fine
The end of the game was pretty frantic, but it didn’t distract from the fact that Crawford was excellent in this series. After struggling against Nashville in the first round, he rebounded against the Wild, stopping 124 of the 131 shots he faced, a save percentage of .947. He was terrific.
One thing he did especially well against Minnesota was controlling rebounds. The Wild scored their first goal in Game 4 off a rare second-chance opportunity, when the puck bounced off Crawford’s left shoulder and right onto the stick of Haula. It was the type of goal that Crawford just hadn’t been allowing in the series. After a shaky first-round performance, the goalie has bounced back into Cup-worthy form.