By Allan Muir
The Chicago Blackhawks are a finished product, an elite-level club ready to challenge for the Stanley Cup. The Minnesota Wild are a work-in-progress, a team headed in the right direction, but still trying to figure out how to get to where the Hawks are today.
Their first round series was a mismatch on paper. It turned out to be a mismatch on the ice as well. With a chance to eliminate a lesser opponent Thursday night, the Hawks did what good teams do: They took care of business, dispatching the Wild with a convincing 5-1 win that closed out the series in five games and sent the Stanley Cup favorites to the second round.
Marian Hossa had a pair of goals for the winners. Torry Mitchell had the lone goal for the Wild, who are left to clear out their lockers and consider the value of this learning experience.
Here are some observations on the series clincher:
• Knocking off Minnesota in five games might suggest Chicago was great in this series. The Blackhawks weren't. Not by a long shot. But goaltender Corey Crawford was, and that was enough.
Crawford, the goat of last spring's first round loss to Phoenix, allayed any concerns that he wasn't up to the challenge of backstopping a Cup contender by allowing just seven goals over the five games. And with his teammates stumbling out of the gates, he was at his best tonight, turning aside 10 shots in the first period as the Wild threw everything at him in a desperate bid to extend their season.
After allowing a goal on the first shot he saw in the series, Crawford found his focus and was Chicago's MVP.
• You had to feel for the guy at the other end of the ice. Josh Harding wrote a great script for himself, coming in cold when Niklas Backstrom was injured in the warmups prior to the opener and almost stealing Game 1. Harding stood in there the rest of the way, giving the Wild as much as they could have asked of him until he was hurt near the end of Game 4. Which made it curious that he started tonight. He was clearly uncomfortable, especially in his side-to-side motions. He was beaten three times on 18 shots, struggling to slide across in each case, before he was pulled for third-stringer Darcy Kuemper. You have to admire Harding's courage and willingness to sacrifice himself for his teammates, but what was Minnesota coach Mike Yeo thinking letting Harding start? Could Kuemper have made a difference if he'd been in from the beginning? Who knows (although that beauty save he made on a Patrick Kane-Patrick Sharp two-on-none break in the third gives a pretty good hint). But he probably wouldn't have hurt his team, and that's exactly what Harding did.
• Beyond goaltending, the difference in this series was the depth and experience of the Blackhawks. Kane and Jonathan Toews combined for 46 goals in the regular season, but neither of them lit the lamp in this series. Toews, for that matter, didn't even register an assist until he delivered a couple of helpers tonight. But with all four lines chipping in, the Hawks scored 17 goals over the five-game series, third-most of any team in the playoffs. Hossa and Sharp led the way, but this series win was a group effort. Of the forwards, only Brandon Bollig and Daniel Carcillo failed to register a point, and they were part-timers. Once Kane and Toews get off the schneid, that depth should guide them all the way to the Final.
• So, what does $100 million get you these days? Not much, apparently. No one expected Zach Parise to play like Mario Lemieux, and even if he had, the outcome of this series wouldn't have changed. But no one was expecting Alain Lemieux, either. Parise was that bad; a huge disappointment. He scored one goal over the five games and was on the ice for eight against, resulting in a healthy minus-7 rating. And with the season on the line in Game 5, he failed to record a shot on goal for the first time in 244 games.
But he wasn't the only Minnesota forward to come up flat. Early in the game tonight, with the Wild dominating the play as they pressed for the early lead, Mikko Koivu took a beautiful set-up from Jason Pominville and put it right into Crawford's pillows. That moment pretty much summed up Minnesota's pop-gun offense in the series. When opportunity landed on their sticks, they either missed the net, had their shots blocked, or sent them squarely into the chest or pads of Crawford.
There will be a lot of focus on the need for quality depth players this summer, and that type won't hurt the cause. But what this team really needs is a premium sniper, someone who can take those chances are turn them into spinning red lights. Scratching and clawing for goals is a noble pursuit, but it only takes you so far.