For additional insight into the Western Conference Second Round series between the Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild, NHL.com has enlisted the help of Claude Noel to break down the action. Noel will be checking in throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Noel was coach for the Winnipeg Jets from 2011-14 and interim coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2009-10. He also coached many years in the minor leagues, including the American Hockey League. In addition, Noel, a former forward, had 138 points in 353 regular-season games in the AHL and played seven games in the NHL with Washington Capitals in 1979-80.
In the end it was more about what the Chicago Blackhawks did well and not what the Minnesota Wild failed to do in four games of the Western Conference Second Round best-of-7 series.
For the fourth straight game the Blackhawks scored the opening goal and rode that momentum to a 4-3 victory in Game 4 against the Wild at Xcel Energy Center on Thursday to advance to the Western Conference Final for the fifth time in seven years.
Claude Noel felt the Blackhawks were steadfast in their system even after the loss of defenseman Michal Rozsival to a serious lower-body injury midway through the second period. They were a team on a mission and, according to Noel, are "ready to take this thing back."
"It was a very well executed series by Chicago," Noel said. "If you look at what they did best, it was all about the details of the game. Where they got pucks, how they finished, when they checked, and being strong on pucks in the big moments when they needed goals.
"More than anything, it's a team that has a plan to go somewhere and they're on a mission. You saw no selfish play."
The Blackhawks have now eliminated the Wild from the Stanley Cup Playoffs three straight seasons, winning 12 of the 15 games in the process. The Blackhawks are 30-0, including 5-0 this postseason, when leading after two periods.
A key moment in the game came at the time of Rozsival's injury, when he fell awkwardly in the neutral zone at 6:23 of the second period while skating backward to defend Wild forward Thomas Vanek after Nino Niederreiter had lifted the puck from the Minnesota end into the Chicago zone. It basically limited Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville to using four defensemen while he continues to ease Kimmo Timonen into the lineup.
Just 18 seconds after Rozsival was helped off the ice, Wild forward Erik Haula scored at 6:41 to cut the Blackhawks' lead to 2-1.
"What I thought when Rozsival went down was I wanted to see if there was a tactic that Minnesota would be able to use to wear down their four defensemen," Noel said. "That's really what you had to watch for since they were down to four and with Timonen being played sparingly … he hadn't played all year, so you have to be careful how you use him."
Timonen played seven shifts after Rozsival was injured, but only three in the third for a total of 1:43. He finished the game with 8:25 in ice time.
"Minnesota wasn't able to use the tactic for half the game or take advantage of the four defensemen," Noel said. "Chicago recognized what they were going to do and they did all the right things. The Wild did get the puck to the goal line and tried to make contact with [the defensemen] to make them work, but Chicago never panicked. It was one bump and then out the side with a pass to a forward to relieve the pressure. They never allowed Minnesota to wear them down.
"It was a mature team knowing how to play even when faced with four defensemen for half the game. Technically, they played smart and waited and got the pucks out of their zone, and scored the goals when they needed them."
Chicago goaltender Corey Crawford also stepped up when his number was called. Crawford made 124 saves on 131 shots in the four wins and finished with a .947 save percentage. He made 34 saves in Game 4.
"Crawford gives up three and they still win the game, but he was really good again," Noel said. "I give Minnesota a lot of credit for the way they battled back in the end to make it close, but Chicago knows how to shut the door and win playing any style."
Minnesota forwards Jason Pominville and Niederreiter scored with 2:18 and 1:27 remaining in the third period respectively to pull their team within 4-3, but it wasn't enough.
"I thought both coaches did a good job trying to get all their players out there at key times while trying to utilize people against certain people," Noel said. "At times [Jonathan] Toews was matched against [Zach] Parise, but not all the time. [Quenneville] trusted his players. At the end of the day, when you look at the series as a whole, Chicago's key players made the bigger plays at the key moments."