Wild, indeed. That is the next assignment for the Blackhawks, beginning Friday night at the United Center. Also, that word captures what unfolded during April in the National Hockey League.
A month ago, the defending Stanley Cup champions endured a three-game losing streak on the road. Two superstars, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, were injured. Head Coach Joel Quenneville prescribed rest for both and focus for all toward what seemed inevitable: a first round playoff tiff against the Colorado Avalanche. He fielded questions about atmospheric conditions in Denver. There was talk of the team leaving two days ahead of the opener in the Mile High City. Your loyal and ancient historian dutifully elicited altitude anecdotes from a former Blackhawk, Troy Murray, who played with the Avs, and a former Blackhawk, Eddie Olczyk, who visited Colorado as an opponent.
Wildness ensued. Colorado surged to win the Central Division, and the St. Louis Blues tumbled to second, while the Blackhawks held third. Within two weeks, itineraries were shredded. The Blackhawks eliminated the Blues, who did hard labor for six months to earn Game 7 at home that was not necessary. The Avs secured a Game 7 at home that they lost Wednesday night, when the Wild erased four separate one-goal deficits to win 5-4 in overtime—a first in NHL annals for a series that went the distance.
So, with the top two seeds in the Central Division gone, the No. 3 Blackhawks will engage the Wild Card Minnesota Wild in the second round. Are Denver and St. Louis in shock? Consider the San Jose Sharks, who won’t be needing hotel accommodations in Anaheim after dropping four in a row to the Los Angeles Kings. As Kane said, that’s hockey.
"THE VERDICT" WITH BOB VERDI
Blackhawks Team Historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune.
> Read Bob Verdi's Round 1 recaps
The mere mention of Minnesota prompts fear and trembling among venerable Chicago fans unable to deploy selective amnesia. In 1991, the Blackhawks rolled to the Presidents’ Trophy with 106 points. Their playoff preamble against the North Stars (68 points) looked like a gimme. But the Blackhawks lost their way as thoroughly as their discipline and were knocked out in six games. The amazing North Stars advanced to the Final, a small salve for the Blackhawks and their misadventures.
Under Coach Q, these Blackhawks are unlikely to waste a winter’s worth of perspiration in the penalty box. They might stray on occasion, but besides their obvious assets—depth, experience, skill—the Blackhawks exude composure. They were in a fix against the Blues upon falling twice in grim fashion at St. Louis, but four consecutive victories perpetuated a championship pedigree. In five series dating back to last postseason, the Blackhawks are 13-1 after Game 3. The longer they play, the better they play—testimony to all the aforementioned positives, plus perhaps also basic hockey IQ.
The Blackhawks began last spring’s run against the Wild. Minnesota’s workhorse goalie, Niklas Backstrom, suffered an injury during the Game 1 warmup at the United Center. Josh Harding, who hadn’t started since Jan. 30, was the emergency replacement. Chicago fans took this problem as a harbinger of good times ahead, an omen. But Coach Q’s mustache did not smile. After the parade, he reflected accordingly. Had the Blackhawks played the way they played against Minnesota, concerns about a short summer would have been immaterial.
Following a 3-2 overtime setback in Game 3 in St. Paul, the Blackhawks still led the series 2-1, but Quenneville called a practice to send a message.
“We’re in our worst stretch of the season,” he said. “Thank goodness we lost that game in Minnesota. We needed that loss. Got their attention, maybe.”
The Blackhawks responded. Sleepless Duncan Keith, who left the team to be with wife Kelly-Rae for the birth of the couple’s first child, Colton, rejoined the team for a 3-0 triumph. Two nights later, the Blackhawks chased Harding, romped 5-1 and won the series 4-1. They trailed the Detroit Red Wings 3-1 during the next round, but rallied to prevail.
“No way we beat Detroit if we played the way we played against Minnesota,” concluded Quenneville.
The Wild employed multiple goaltenders during the regular season and again might face issues in net. Darcy Kuemper started Game 7 in Denver Wednesday night, but departed because of an undisclosed injury with 8:13 remaining in the third period for veteran Ilya Bryzgalov, acquired at the trade deadline from the Edmonton Oilers. He lost Games 1 and 2, but was required to make only one save in the clincher before Nino Niederreiter scored 5:02 into sudden-death overtime.
The Avalanche, with youth and speed, catapulted from the depths of the NHL in one season under Head Coach Patrick Roy, winning four of five regular-season games against the Blackhawks. Semyon Varlamov, Colorado’s masked man, befuddled the defending champions. But it’s the Stanley Cup playoffs. Wild. Anybody interested in some altitude anecdotes?