CHICAGO – With the regular-season dwindling, the playoffs have practically started for teams on the cusp, like the Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild.
That's why Wednesday night's 3-1 Blackhawks' win against the Wild in front of 21,535 at the United Center was such a big victory. Add to it the fact that Chicago coach Joel Quenneville was hospitalized on Wednesday morning with an undisclosed medical condition and the Hawks had even more incentive.
Chicago (29-22-6) started the day in 11th place in the Western Conference and simply had to have these two standings points to start off a crucial three-game home stand. Just to make sure the Hawks were up for it, acting coach Mike Haviland tried to instill some confidence before they took the ice.
"I just talked about the importance of the game and went over a little bit about Minnesota," said Haviland, who made his NHL debut as a head coach. "I talked about what we wanted to do in the game and then just said, 'Hey, it's time. It's time for us to make a stand here. We know we can do it in this room. We just can't wait for tomorrow.' Basically what I said is just, 'Look forward here, play 20 minutes at a time and don’t worry about anything else. We win 20 at a time and go from there.'"
That's how they got it done against the Wild, even though the first 10 minutes was rather forgettable. Coming off a tough two-week road trip, the Hawks looked sluggish as Minnesota racked up an 11-2 advantage in shots on goal in the first half of the first.
Rookie goalie Corey Crawford was up to the task, however. He kept the Wild off the scoreboard and paved the way for Brian Campbell's power-play goal at 12:59 of the first to give Chicago a 1-0 lead.
Crawford finished with 33 saves to lead the way, while a clutch power-play goal by Troy Brouwer at 7:33 of the third stood up as the game-winner – coming just 34 seconds after Minnesota’s Matt Cullen tied it 1-1, also on a power play.
Brouwer tried to feed a pass through the crease to Marian Hossa, but the puck deflected off a stick past Minnesota goalie Jose Theodore (34 saves).
"My goal was a little bit of a lucky one, but just bringing pucks to the net is what we need to do," Brouwer said. "Just to come back and get some life in the building and add some life in the boys, it was crucial. Sometimes those ugly ones are more important than scoring a nice, pretty goal."
Jake Dowell added an empty-netter with 59 seconds left to complete the scoring, while center Dave Bolland (3 assists) and forward Hossa (2 assists) both had multi-point efforts.
"I felt good," said Crawford, who watched the Hawks get outshot 13-5 at one point in the first. "I felt kind of in the zone. I got a little bit more work than usual. Our guys are pretty good at keeping the shot totals low, but that's going to happen from time to time."
Crawford has never played a playoff game in the NHL, but is getting the feel of what it must be like this season.
"It seems like every team that comes in has played really hard against us, and there's been no easy games," Crawford said. "We've played in a lot of tight games this year and tonight wasn't any different."
The Wild know the feeling, especially after losing two games in a row in which they felt good about their overall performance. Not scoring during the dominating stretch to start the game continued a maddening dry spell for the Wild (30-22-5) – who lost 4-1 to the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday despite outshooting the Canucks 29-14, including 13-1 in the third period.
"What are you going to do?" said Cal Clutterbuck, Minnesota's leading goal scorer. "When they don't go in, they don't go in. The last thing we want to do is to start to worry about it. When you start to worry, you start to grip the stick a little tight – and that’s when you really get into trouble."
Theodore also played well, shining brightest in the second period.
He helped the Wild kill four Blackhawks power plays in that period – including a double-minor assessed to Clutterbuck for high sticking. Chicago outshot the Wild 18-8 in the second thanks to all the man-advantage time, but couldn’t get a single puck past Theodore – who also got some help from the posts.
Theodore also came up with a nice pad save against Hossa with time running out in the period to keep it 1-0 heading to the second intermission. That led to Cullen's 11th of the season tying it 1-1 on a power play at 6:59 of the third. After taking a pass from Jared Spurgeon in the Chicago zone, Cullen deked Crawford to the ice and slid the puck past the right pad.
Brouwer didn't let the tie last long, potting his power-play marker less than a minute later to give Chicago a 2-1 lead with 12:27 left – and ultimately a huge win with just 25 games left to secure a playoff spot.
"This definitely is playoff hockey," Hawks captain Jonathan Toews said. "It's starting for us. These are do-or-die games. These are points we've got to go get every single night. These are games that we've got to be excited about. We can't just keep procrastinating and waiting for the next one, because we're running out of time."