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.
The last time the Chicago Blackhawks won the opening three games of a best-of-7 series was during the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs when they would ultimately win the Stanley Cup for the fourth time in franchise history.
The Blackhawks swept the San Jose Sharks in four games in the Western Conference Final that spring before defeating the Philadelphia Flyers in six games in the Stanley Cup Final.
The Blackhawks opened a 3-0 lead in their Western Conference Second Round series against the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday following a 1-0 victory in Game 3 at Xcel Energy Center in Minnesota.
Claude Noel felt the Blackhawks exhibited a textbook game plan once they took a 1-0 lead. Even when there were a few miscues in their own zone, goaltender Corey Crawford was there to shut the door every time.
"Minnesota had three power plays, and when you talk about the game within the game, 80 percent of the time if you win special teams you will win and it happened in Game 3," Noel said. "Chicago doesn't need much to win. They've got good smart players, good offensive players, but they're committed to winning and one (goal) is enough; they've proven that. That's how you get 100 points every year (during the regular season)."
Patrick Kane scored on Chicago's only power play of the game at 14:06 of the first period and Crawford made 30 saves for his fourth career postseason shutout and first this season. Crawford has made 90 saves on 94 shots in three wins against the Wild.
Noel thought the Blackhawks did a combination of things that thwarted the Wild even when they began to find their offensive push in the third period, when they outshot Chicago 10-4.
"Minnesota didn't have great shooting lanes and it could be a combination of not shooting enough on the power play or the fact Chicago did a great job blocking shots," Noel said. "Chicago's defense had 13 of the team's 19 blocked shots for the game and then you add to that the way Crawford is playing and the way Chicago checks, there just isn't a lot of room (for Minnesota)."
Chicago defensemen had nine shots on goal, as compared to the three shots generated by defensemen for the Wild.
"There were times, especially in the third, where Minnesota would have zone time but couldn't get the shot on net even when they had full control," Noel said. "You talk about how to close out a game. I thought Chicago did a great job; they took away Minnesota's speed for the first two periods. In the third the Wild did a better job getting pucks deep and getting those pucks in there for zone time."
It's possible the Wild may need to change their line combinations to get their star players untracked, particularly with the last line change as the home team in an elimination game scenario Thursday in Game 4 (9:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports 2). Minnesota has four goals in three games in this series, and six in the past five postseason games against Crawford dating back to Game 5 last year. Chicago has won all five of those games.
"Chicago's defense retrieves pucks quickly and anything that's not a good dump and goes to the goaltender then goes to the 'D' and then out," Noel said. "They're able to get to the puck quickly and they're first on pucks in their own zone a lot of the time. Chicago gives you no time because of their speed and [Duncan] Keith does that so well in big situations. He can jump up and be aggressive because he skates so well.
"Chicago has good players, good forwards and defensemen, and they know how to close out 1-0 games."
It has almost become a race to score the first goal by each team in the three games. The Blackhawks have scored the opening goal three straight times.
"When you score first you can be patient and play smart, and as long as you're playing for the sake of the team you're in good shape," Noel said. "Chicago did make mistakes, they got a little too aggressive and were a little undisciplined midway through the second period, but Crawford was there to shut the door. He was able to make two huge saves on Minnesota breakaways after a few aggressive plays from the Chicago forwards in the Wild end of the ice."
Crawford denied Mikael Granlund on a breakaway on the second, one of his 12 stops in the period.
The Wild are now forced to win four straight games against a team that appears as determined as ever to close out the series on Thursday.
Is it possible?
"Minnesota will not be focused on results, they'll be focused on small segments of their game such as winning puck battles, getting pucks deep, and just getting and managing the first five minutes and get their crowd into the game by being smart and patient," Noel said. "If they can get that first goal that would be good for them because it will help build confidence, so they have to be on their toes and have that urgency."
The Blackhawks know they are one win away from making a trip to the Western Conference Final for the fifth time in seven years, and that will be motivation enough.
"It's not going to be easy because Chicago knows Minnesota will come out desperate [in Game 4]," Noel said. "They're not just going to sit there and allow the Wild to do their thing. They'll be doing their thing too, flying out of the zone. And if Minnesota gets caught, it could be trouble."