The Chicago Blackhawks are back in the Western Conference Final, one series win away from advancing to the Stanley Cup Final for a second straight year.
In the Western Conference Second Round, the Minnesota Wild gave the Blackhawks all they could handle before succumbing in six games, including a 2-1 loss in overtime of the deciding Game 6 at Xcel Energy Center on Tuesday.
"That was a tough team," Chicago goalie Corey Crawford said after Game 6. "They played really hard in this building, in Chicago too. They kept coming at us, tough series, really tough series."
Minnesota got the best-of-7 to 2-2 with back-to-back wins at home in Games 3 and 4, and put huge scares into the defending champions in Games 5 and 6 before falling short by a goal each time.
Here are five reasons the Blackhawks were the better team against the Wild:
Chicago's biggest stars delivered at the most opportune times.
Captain Jonathan Toews, quieted for much of the series by the effective checking of the Wild, worked himself free for the briefest moment in the third period of Game 5 and slammed home a loose puck for what proved to be the winning goal in a game that changed the dynamic of the series.
Two nights later, it was Patrick Kane's turn. In Game 6, he was the most dangerous forward in a Blackhawks uniform, but the reward would not come. That all changed halfway through overtime when Kane was the right man in the right spot to claim a bad bounce off a stanchion behind the net and roof a shot under the crossbar to end the series.
"I think as a team we played our best game [Tuesday] and Kane was front and center once again," Toews said.
Kane has four overtime winners in his young career, proving he is among the most clutch players of his generation.
2. Championship pedigree
Since 2009, the Blackhawks are 14-0 in games after a series has been tied 2-2. So they have essentially swept all seven best-of-3 scenarios they have faced in the postseason during their revival. That speaks to a winning mindset.
A strong push by the Wild in the first period of Game 5 or the second period of Game 6 was nothing new to the Blackhawks, who have taken the best punches from many of the NHL's best teams since 2009.
The Blackhawks might stagger when they are under attack, but they never fully buckle.
"We want to win; that's all that matters," Toews said. "It's a lot of fun when we work as hard as we can. We faced a little bit of adversity, and I think it means so much more when you succeed and you come out of those situations."
Crawford is often lost in the shuffle when looking at the success of the Blackhawks.
Pundits look at the embarrassment of riches up front and say the Blackhawks are among the best and deepest attacks in the NHL. They look at Chicago's top four on the blue line and see elite two-way talent few teams can match.
As a result, there is a widely-held opinion that Crawford merely needs to be average for Chicago to win. That couldn't have been further from the truth. Yes, he gave up eight goals during a four-period run bridging the end of Game 3 and the start of Game 4, but after that he was Chicago's best player, hands down.
The second period of Game 6 was Minnesota's best of the series. They easily could have scored four goals. Instead they got one as Crawford made 13 saves, many of them highlight-reel stops, to keep the Wild from getting the lead they so desperately needed.
"He is a great goaltender and we feel he is the best in the League," Kane said.
4. All the Right Moves
Chicago coach Joel Quenneville has won two titles since 2010 and he is not shy about making the tough decisions.
In the second period of Game 6, the Blackhawks were close to being run out of the building, so Quenneville used his timeout to regroup the troops.
In Game 5, Chicago was desperate for offense after being outscored 8-2 in the two games in Minnesota. So Quenneville put Toews, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa back together on the first line, their first time together since early March. The unit responded with perhaps the most dominant single shift of the series, which culminated in Toews scoring the winning goal.
Veteran defenseman Michal Rozsival had a very difficult Game 4 and was replaced in Game 5; Quenneville reworked his No. 3 pair throughout the series. Quenneville wanted more from veteran forward Kris Versteeg, so he benched him on more than one occasion to get the message across. Versteeg played in Game 6 and scored the first goal.
5. Block party
Defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson did not make a big impact offensively in this series. His two assists in Game 1 were his only points, but he set the tone in so many other ways, sacrificing his body to lead Chicago's shot-blocking parade.
For much of the series, Hjalmarsson could not talk after being struck in the throat by a shot. He had to wear a protective collar but never missed a shift. He blocked 13 shots against the Wild, including a laser beam in Game 6 that forced him to skate gingerly to the bench.
The price he paid blocking shots became contagious among Blackhawks players, who blocked 94 shots in the series and forced the Wild to rethink their offensive strategy, particularly early in the series.
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