ST. PAUL – All the trappings were in place at Xcel Energy Center Thursday night. The usual array of visual prompts from the scoreboard. Free towels suitable for waving draped over seats. Celebrity cheerleaders to enhance the mood and convey the urgency.
Unfortunately for these devoted fans, the Blackhawks were also in the building. Despite an impactful injury, a hairy ending and a close shave, Chicago’s boys of winter concluded a week of schooling the Minnesota Wild with a 4-3 triumph.
The green-clad victims of this crash course, eliminated in two previous years by the Blackhawks, felt that an elevated level of talent, particularly in goal, would yield a different result this spring. But sometimes sequels are even more disappointing that what came before. They made “Mall Cop 2,” didn’t they?
So the Blackhawks advance to their fifth Western Conference Final in seven years the fastest way, if not the easiest – four straight games, an unlikely sweep against a Wild bunch that lit up the National Hockey League from mid-January until they showed up at the United Center a week ago and stepped up in class.
The Blackhawks, who don’t act giddy in public, had cause to reflect after the handshakes. Michal Rozsival, who had been consuming 16 or 17 minutes nightly, was helped off the ice in the second period with an apparent injury to his left leg. Untouched, he twisted to the ice and Thomas Vanek roared by for a solo that was halted by Corey Crawford.
The score remained 2-0 for the Blackhawks on goals by Brent Seabrook and Andrew Shaw. But not for long, as Erik Haula halved the margin off the draw following Rozsival’s exit. Then the defensive rotation that had been operating quite smoothly had to be revamped on the run, not that heavy, meaningful minutes are novel job descriptions for Duncan Keith, Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson or Johnny Oduya.
Hjalmarsson, who skates an inordinate amount of time against the opponent’s best because he is so trusted by Head Coach Joel Quenneville, even initiated a sequence toward what appeared to be an insurance goal.
Patrick Kane, the magician, The Amazing Kaner, wedged another puck through Devan Dubnyk for what felt like insurance at 13:20 of the third period. Then Marian Hossa found an empty net while the Blackhawks were shorthanded; it was 4-1, and you didn’t have to yell “Fire!” in the Xcel Energy Center. Parking lots were suddenly humming.
“Not exactly a textbook ending,” noted Crawford after the Wild clicked twice and darn near tied the thing with a final fling. But the Blackhawks prevailed to boost their record to 30-0-0 when leading after two periods this season, and now comes a break in the action. A replacement for Rozsival must be found, and a third-round opponent will be identified, either the Calgary Flames or Anaheim Ducks.
A frustrated Coach Mike Yeo juggled his Wild personnel slightly, moving center Charlie Coyle, who never won a faceoff in Game 3, to the wing for Mikko Koivu. The Blackhawks stayed the same, containing the Wild for the most part and never allowing them a lead in the series. Very impressive. Just when a feisty foe, either from within the Central Division or without, gets a notion that the pecking order is ripe for change, the Blackhawks think of something. They are especially fond of crashing parties in enemy territories.
As more Europeans join the NHL, they bring with them the urge to kick a soccer ball around before games, all the better to keep loose in the bowels of arenas. Then there is Zach Parise, a rare talent and character guy with the Wild. Parise, an all-American, packs a baseball glove and hardball. He plays catch with a staff member outside the locker room.
Now, much sooner than expected, Parise will take his ball and glove home for the summer.