Never in franchise history have the Blackhawks been on such a binge. They have won seven of their last eight playoff series, their only setback being on a freakish score in overtime of Game 7 against the eventual 2014 Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.
This warming trend should be a salve for venerable fans who recall when the Blackhawks closed the 1970s with losses in 16 consecutive postseason games, a National Hockey League record that might be around for a while.
Whether the Blackhawks can continue onward starting Friday night at the United Center depends largely on goalie Devan Dubnyk, who has dazzled in what has been a Bermuda rectangle for the Minnesota Wild. In 2013, Niklas Backstrom pulled up lame during the warmup for Game 1 here, yielding to Josh Harding. A year ago, the Wild came to Chicago on a high, having upset the Colorado Avalanche in overtime of Game 7, during which Darcy Kuemper got hurt.
Here is how last May’s Second Round went:
Game 1: With Kuemper ailing, Ilya Bryzgalov took over the visitors’ cage, backed up by John Curry, who played only twice all season. The Wild held up on short rest into the third period. But then Patrick Kane skated through five Wild men toward the blue paint, so deep it seemed he could not possibly finish. That’s when Kane lifted a backhand – as if propelled by helium – on a vertical trajectory over Bryzgalov’s shoulder to break the 2-2 tie.
“Nobody else in this room has that shot,” gushed Patrick Sharp after a 5-2 victory. Kane’s father, Patrick Sr., confirmed that his son had been working on that move since he was 7.
Game 2: Bryan Bickell, who had two goals in Game 1, scored again in a 4-1 triumph. Niklas Hjalmarsson took a slapshot in the neck, went down in a heap, continued to play and registered two assists. But he couldn’t talk about them – or anything else – for a couple weeks.
Game 3: Hjalmarsson wore a surgical collar, and the Blackhawks also drew the collar, losing 4-0 in St. Paul. Minnesota scored all four goals in the third period as the Blackhawks dropped their ninth consecutive playoff opener on the road. Referencing Hjalmarsson, Head Coach Joel Quenneville quipped before the game that if all players could be relieved of speaking to the media, there would be a run on surgical collars. After the defeat, Quenneville changed his mind. The Blackhawks practiced on the day between games.
Game 4: On the front page of the morning newspaper, there was a huge picture of a fish. It was walleye season, and Minnesotans love the outdoors. But the so-called “State of Hockey” rejoiced indoors, because the Wild won 4-2, as the Blackhawks generated only 20 shots on Bryzgalov, who might have been thinking twice about retiring at the end of the playoffs.
Game 5: Bickell scored his seventh goal in two playoff series against Minnesota, then Jonathan Toews scored what he said was an “ugly” goal to snap a tie early in the third period at the United Center. He initiated the rush by bumping Mikael Granlund, then burrowed toward the net and refused to leave the vicinity until he saw a red light. In a work of art celebrating the art of work, Toews willed the puck past Bryzgalov for an edgy 2-1 victory. “He’s unbelievable,” said Marian Hossa of Toews, who now has 10 game-winning playoff goals, a franchise record.
Game 6: Back in the Xcel Energy Center, Corey Crawford polished off another strong series by saving 34 of 35 shots as the Blackhawks eliminated the Wild with a 2-1 win, after Kane scored his sixth goal and third game-winner of the postseason at 9:42 of overtime. Brent Seabrook’s blast off the end boards ricocheted to Kane, who roofed another backhand over Bryzgalov.
“Now we can get a little rest,” said Kane after the Blackhawks again completed an assignment without courting the inherent dangers of Game 7.
En route to Stanley Cups in 2010 and 2013, the Blackhawks played 45 games, but only one series went the limit: against the Detroit Red Wings in the 2013 Western Conference Semifinals. Seabrook won that in overtime.
Moreover, the Blackhawks know how to close. In the aforementioned run of seven series triumphs in their last eight, they are 19-5 after Game 3 and 14-2 after Game 4. They lost the Game 7 that still hurts against the Kings, and Game 5 against Nashville last week.