By Allan Muir
It took five games, but the real Chicago Blackhawks finally made an appearance in their Western Conference Semifinal.
They rolled four lines. They were physical. They cashed in on the power play. And with captain Jonathan Toews leading the way, the Chicago Blackhawks smoked the Detroit Red Wings, 4-1, in Game 5 to stave off what would have been a cruel elimination after such a dominant regular season.
Toews, offering up his best game of the playoffs, scored his first goal of the postseason on a second-period man advantage that put the contest out of reach. The Hawks also got a pair from Andrew Shaw and a single from Bryan Bickell.
Danny Cleary scored the lone goal for the Red Wings, who failed to match the intensity of Chicago from the opening face-off and now have to head home for a must-win Game 6 on Monday if they want to avoid a winner-take-all Game 7 back at the United Center.
Here are some thoughts and observations from Chicago's series-extending win:
• This was a night of redemption for two players whose lack of composure cost Chicago dearly in Games 3 and 4.
Toews, whose offensive frustration led to three consecutive minors in less than six minutes on Thursday, finally got the monkey off his back. Parked about 10 feet to the left of Wings goalie Jimmy Howard, he kicked a bad pass out of his feet and onto his stick before ricocheting a wrister off Howard's mask and over his shoulder to give Chicago a 3-1 lead. It was his 33rd shot of the playoffs, and his relief after so many misses was palpable. Toews has worked hard during the playoffs, but he was never as effective as he was on Saturday night. He attacked the puck and the net ferociously, daring defenders to stop him.
He'd put one behind Howard earlier in the game, hacking away at a loose puck while lying in the crease, but it was waved off after a quick whistle. He also drew the penalty that ended with Shaw's first of the game on the power play.
The Hawks needed a superlative effort from their leader tonight. He delivered.
• Shaw spent the night on a revamped fourth line with Viktor Stalberg and Brandon Saad, and chimed in with a vigorous effort. He got the crowd going early with big hits on Jakub Kindl and Carlo Colaiacovo and then brought the fans to their feet with his second and third goals of the playoffs. He outworked Niklas Kronwall for space down low before tipping Duncan Keith's point blast past Howard for Chicago's first power play goal in 14 tries, then capitalized on a defensive breakdown to pick up a loose puck behind the Detroit net and jam it into the empty side for the clincher. Seems fair to assume he's back in Joel Quenneville's good graces after this one. Look for him to see a bump in ice time in Game 6 after playing just 12:25 in Game 5.
• Mike Babcock has owned the coaching edge in this series, but Quenneville pushed all the right buttons in this one. He kept the same pieces in the lineup, but moved them around to create a different dynamic that allowed him to roll all four lines. He made great use of the last change, keeping Toews away from Henrik Zetterberg and, for the most part, Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson.
But his best call may have activating his defense early in the game. Chicago's blueliners joined the rush and helped the forwards outnumber Detroit's defense deep in its zone, creating far more than the five turnovers the Red Wings were credited with on the night. They ended up generating 16 shots, with Brent Seabrook accounting for seven of them on his own, and stymied Detroit's transition game with their pressure.
That's probably not an approach he can use again Monday. Babcock will be ready to exploit it with a quicker transition game geared toward catching them deep and generating odd-man rushes. But Quenneville reminded everyone he can keep up with the best in the game tonight. Don't be surprised to find he kept some of his powder dry for Game 6.
• Enough can't be said about the effort of Bickell. The big banger made an impact in all three zones, bookending his goal with devastating hits on Joakim Andersson in the first period and one on Kronwall in the third that planted Detroit's top defender on the bench for the rest of the game. That play epitomized Chicago's commitment to finish the game in high gear and might have softened Kronwall up a bit for Game 6. If it did, that hit may end up being more important to the Hawks than his tally.
Bickell's an unrestricted free agent this summer, and you have to think that if the Hawks decide they can't afford him there will be a long line of bidders after watching the way he showed up for work in these playoffs.
• Outside of another strong performance from Howard, who stopped 41 of 45 shots on the night and kept Detroit closer than it had any right to be, there wasn't much positive to take out of this game for the visitors. They said all the right things heading into the contest, but the Wings never really gave themselves a chance to win this one. They allowed Chicago to dictate the tone and pace from the start and never found a way to match their intensity and desperation.
It wasn't just a slow start the killed them. It was their inability to make adjustments and kick up their effort with the game on the line. Consider that the Wings entered the third period on the tail end of a power play with a chance to cut the lead to 3-2 and failed to register a shot. In fact, with a chance to finish off the Hawks on the line, they managed a total of four shots in the third. Four.