CHICAGO -- For the Chicago Blackhawks and their fans, there was a collective exhale late Wednesday night.
The Blackhawks had a historically great regular season, beginning the campaign without a regulation loss in their first 24 games and rolling to the Presidents' Trophy. After swiftly dispatching the Minnesota Wild in the opening round, the Blackhawks ran into trouble during the Western Conference Semifinals.
This season was one loss from having a tremendously disappointing ending, but the Blackhawks rallied to win three straight against the rival Detroit Red Wings and advance to the Western Conference Final with a Game 7 overtime victory Wednesday at United Center.
Chicago is halfway to claiming the Stanley Cup for a second time in four years.
Here are five reasons the Blackhawks were able to eek by the Red Wings:
1. Found their playoff legs
After the Western Conference Semifinals, Chicago coach Joel Quenneville talked about how he thought his team would need to get up to speed with the other playoff participants. A combination of Minnesota's style of play and Chicago just not playing as well as it was capable was the reason.
He was right. Chicago won Game 1 of this series, but even Quenneville admitted the Red Wings were likely tired from traveling back and forth to Anaheim in the first round. After that, the Red Wings won three straight. The Blackhawks were shocked into a simple dilemma: Play better or go home.
They played better. They faced real adversity for the first time this season -- and survived.
2. Crawford bounced back
The Blackhawks were 20 minutes from elimination in Game 6, and they were down 2-1 because of a soft goal allowed by Corey Crawford. He had already regrouped -- the Red Wings dominated the game shortly after the goal in the second period and Crawford was the reason it stayed 2-1 -- then his teammates followed with a great third period in the 4-3 victory.
Crawford was overshadowed by Detroit's Jimmy Howard in this series. Crawford didn't have to make nearly as many great saves, but when the Blackhawks needed him he made the saves he had to. His overall numbers in the postseason are second only to the guy he's about to face, Los Angeles' Jonathan Quick.
3. Killing momentum
The Wild could not solve the Blackhawks' penalty killers, and the Red Wings didn't fare much better. Chicago erased 23 of 24 power-play opportunities for Detroit in the series, and it may have been the single biggest advantage for the Blackhawks.
After finishing third in the NHL in PK proficiency during the regular season at 87.2 percent, the Blackhawks are 40-for-41 in the postseason. The power play has not been very good, but the penalty killing has been tremendous.
4. Loading up worked
Quenneville decided to shake up his forward lines after losing Game 4, and he put Patrick Kane on the top line with Patrick Sharp and Jonathan Toews. They had played together in the past, but not much lately.
That trio of stars had a much greater impact on the final three games of the series than in the first four. They created chances and controlled the puck. Marian Hossa was the odd man out of the top-four forwards, but he found scoring chances on the second line. The third line for much of the season also was reunited, and Andrew Shaw had two goals in Game 5.
Quenneville also put his two best defensemen back together on the top pairing and the move certainly seemed to help Brent Seabrook, who was much better in the final three games and ended up scoring the series-winner.
5. They solved Howard
After four games in this series, Howard was looking like the 2013 edition of Jaroslav Halak, who carried the Montreal Canadiens past the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins in 2010. He was great in Game 1 before the Blackhawks' domination finally won out, then Howard was nearly unbeatable in Games 2, 3 and 4.
Howard didn't allow any bad goals in the final three games, but the Blackhawks made life harder on him and started to score. Shaw tipped in a goal from the top of the crease. Bryan Bickell scored on a rebound from the same spot. Hossa scored on a scrum near the net. Chicago had to figure out a way to get pucks past Howard, or the Red Wings were going to steal this series. They did, and now it won't get any easier trying to figure out Quick in the next round.
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