On Sunday night the Chicago Blackhawks faced the Minnesota Wild in a divisional game. To say the game is important is an understatement; to say it is a must-win is hyperbole. The Wild and Hawks are tied for the last spot in the playoffs with 37 points. A win here would continue a five game win streak for the Hawks and put them in a playoff spot prior to a six game road trip. A loss puts the Hawks on the outside looking in facing a tough road stretch. So what happened?
The first period was a typical Minnesota Wild period under head coach Bruce Boudreau. The Wild won the period in terms of shots, but their grinding, pedestrian style produced few legitimate scoring opportunities after the first few minutes. They took few chances leaving Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford in good position to make routine stops. Crawford was on point as usual, stopping every chance. The Blackhawks benefitted from Crawford’s continued excellence, improved defense and faceoff production. Patrick Kane scored his 13th goal at 9:04 on a perfect pass from Nick Schmaltz for the only score of the period. The score followed a key faceoff win for Jonathan Toews over Mikko Koivu, which is a reversal of fortune from last year. Koivu is a faceoff specialist and Toews frequently gets kicked from the dot under the new rules. The Hawks’ improvement at the dot and Schmaltz finding his offensive legs recently led to the Hawks 1-0 lead after one.
The second period was a back and forth affair. Both teams had great scoring chances; each team relying on excellent goaltending to stem the tide. The difference in the period was a beautiful player change for the Hawks and brilliant passing from defenseman Jordan Oesterle, who hit Patrick Kane in stride while entering the game at 4:24 of the second period. Kane beat the defenseman to retrieve the puck and beat goaltender Alex Stalock in the five hole to give the Blackhawks a 2-0 lead. This was Kane’s second of the night and seventh point in four games. For the Hawks, Kane’s return to greatness is the difference between mediocrity and conference contender.
The third period began much the same as the second period ended- lots of Blackhawks pressure. Ryan Hartman scored at 18:19 after some excellent forechecking on the boards. Hartman lifted the puck over Stalock’s outreached stick to pot the puck. Four minutes later Minnesota defenseman Matt Dumba finally beat Crawford for the Wild’s first goal of the game. It is all for nothing as the Hawks put 46 shots on goal and pot an empty net goal by Tommy Wingels to complete the 4-1 victory.
This was a great win for the Blackhawks. It was two points that put them in the playoffs at this point, and the second straight win against Central Division opponents. Five straight wins for the Blackhawks, and most importantly, a return to form for a team that should compete for the Western Conference Crown. Small steps at this point that could loom large as the Hawks embark on a six game road trip. If the Hawks continue to get Vezina-level goal tending from Crawford, scoring from Kane and an emerging defensive game that pushes the puck and limits opportunities, the Hawks will be tough to beat.
The Blackhawks start their six game road trip at Dallas on Thursday, December 21.