Chicagoans are inherently suspicious of quarterbacks, goalkeepers and parking meters, but sometimes you just have to stand up and salute a bit of masterpiece theater.
Early in Thursday night’s late show at the United Center—long before the Blackhawks would bend, fold and eliminate the Minnesota Wild—only Corey Crawford prevented a desperate visiting team from scoring once, twice, maybe more.
For several minutes during the first period, he was under siege. Yet repeatedly, and athletically, Crawford repelled rubber, including a blast by Mikko Koivu that seemed destined for nothing but net. As if on cue, 21,597 stood and serenaded the masked man who came in from a cold of a year ago.
“That was nice,” said Crawford after the Blackhawks pounded the Wild, 5-1, to clinch the Western Conference Quarterfinals, 4-games-to-1. The series was unspectacular, the victors efficient, and the motif rather polite for playoff hockey. Minnesota accused Chicago of “cheating” on faceoffs, but otherwise, this rivalry has a ways to go before it finds anger.
Had Crawford been less than brilliant, however, the Blackhawks might be going back to St. Paul. Instead, they advance for the first time in three years and will have a weekend without games while other series conclude. Come next week, Tuesday or Wednesday, either the Detroit Red Wings or San Jose Sharks will be in the United Center for Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference Semifinals.
“We still have lots of work to do,” said Crawford, who quite rightly put a couple soft playoff goals from last April in his rear-view mirror and reinforced his role as the No. 1 netminder when this short schedule began in January. He was very good throughout, and against the Wild he was even better—seven goals against in five-plus games.
Thursday night, after leaning on Crawford for half the first period, teammates seconded his desire to avoid a return flight Friday. Marian Hossa made it 1-0 from the left dot on a feed from Jonathan Toews. Early in the second, Marcus Kruger button-hooked around Josh Harding to score, a just reward for half of the Blackhawks’ ace penalty killing tandem along with Michael Frolik. The Wild had 17 power plays in the tournament, and they haven’t clicked yet.
Hossa tallied again, beating Harding to a loose puck. Darcy Kuemper relieved Harding, then yielded to Andrew Shaw and Patrick Sharp before the ceremonial handshakes. The Wild created waves during the summer by signing free agents Zach Parise (minus-7 this series) and workhorse Ryan Suter (minus-5), but they were no match for the Blackhawks in depth.
Crawford praised the defensive posture in front of him, and he is too polite to remark on Minnesota’s flawed marksmanship. But he was the significant difference at the most important position, a position unsettled for the Wild after iron man Niklas Backstrom was injured before the opener.
“We love our fans,” concluded Crawford. On Thursday night, they chanted mutual admiration.