CHICAGO – If the rest of this Stanley Cup Playoff series is anything like the opener on Tuesday night, fans better carve out time now to watch the remaining games between the Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks.
After a back-and-forth overtime filled with scoring chances and big saves, Bryan Bickell finally found the back of the net 16:35 into OT to give the Blackhawks a 2-1 victory against the Wild in Game 1 of their Western Conference Quarterfinal series.
Johnny Oduya lobbed a pass over the head of Minnesota defenseman Ryan Suter that Viktor Stalberg chased down, creating a 2-on-1 rush. Stalberg found Bickell streaking down the slot and got him the puck. Bickell then went forehand-to-backhand before sliding the puck through the legs of goaltender Josh Harding – who got the last-second start when Niklas Backstrom left the pregame warm-up early with an unspecified lower-body injury.
Chicago's third line of Bickell, center Andrew Shaw and Stalberg was tabbed as one of the X-factors for a Blackhawks team that used impressive depth to roll up 77 points in a 48-game regular season and cashed in big to end the first game.
"We were on the ice for the first goal against and we weren't happy with that," Stalberg said of a goal by Cal Clutterbuck 4:48 into the game that gave the Wild a 1-0 lead. "It was kind of a fluke goal, I thought, but you're never happy when you're on the ice for a goal against. So we tried to work all game to get that one back and we did when it mattered most."
The series resumes Friday night at United Center.
Marian Hossa tied it 1-1 early in the second on a power-play goal scored with five seconds remaining in a penalty to Zach Parise for goaltender interference, and that was it for scoring until Bickell's heroics.
"I was kind of ... I don't want to say, 'cheating,' [but] I was taking a little bit of a gamble," Bickell said, explaining how he got so open for the pass from Stalberg. "I saw it was a high flip and then it made it over [Suter's] glove. I knew [Stalberg] was going to get it and it was just a read on the ice to jump into the play and get that opportunity."
Harding was fantastic and stopped 35 shots. Corey Crawford made 26 saves for the Blackhawks, including a big stop on Parise's blast from the slot not long before Bickell's game-winner. It was redemption of sorts for Crawford, who wasn't happy with Clutterbuck's goal on an open wrister from the left circle.
It was also a bit of redemption for allowing a couple of overtime goals that he probably should've stopped in last season's first-round loss to the Phoenix Coyotes.
"It's not the way I wanted to start, but I was able to regroup pretty good," Crawford said. "The guys were behind me, encouraging me, and we played a good game. They're a tough team. They just sit around and try to take away as [many] chances from us as they can. That was a crazy one."
It was crazy because it had just about every element that makes playoff hockey so nerve-wracking and, often, inspirational.
Take Harding, for instance. He hadn't started an NHL game since Jan. 30 in Minnesota, when he was pulled just 6:45 into a game against Chicago after allowing two goals on four shots.
The Wild won that one in a shootout, but Harding left the team not long afterward for more than two months while dealing with effects of multiple sclerosis and his adjustment to medication. After battling his way back, he was a big bright spot for Minnesota despite having to make an emergency start when Backstrom was injured during warm-ups.
"It was a bit of a curveball to say the least," Wild coach Mike Yeo said of the goalie change. "We had to turn our attention to the game very quickly at that point. [Harding was] phenomenal. It's hard to sit here and paint an accurate picture of what he's gone through. I have no idea. We have no idea. He's a guy, certainly, that for many reasons you're rooting for."
Harding was sharp all game and the Wild did a great job of packing together in front of him to block shots and fill shooting lanes. They blocked 21 shots and made it tough on the Blackhawks' offense.
Minnesota also lost defenseman Clayton Stoner for most of the first period after a hit by Shaw, but led 1-0 after 20 minutes on Clutterbuck's goal – his first career playoff tally. Crawford rebounded to make a couple of brilliant saves to deny Kyle Brodziak in the last minute of the first or Chicago would have really been staggered.
As expected, the Blackhawks came out strong in the second and tied it 1-1 at 2:06 on Hossa's power-play goal – his 37th career playoff tally. Kane set it up by feeding a perfect pass from the slot to the left circle, where Hossa received it and beat Harding with a wrist shot that re-energized the building.
Chicago gradually ramped up the pressure, but Harding remained equal to the task. His team, meanwhile, stayed content to play a defensive game and counterpunch off any turnovers. As a result, the game stayed deadlocked 1-1 into the third, where it was more of the same.
Just 1:31 into the final period, Patrick Kane got behind a Wild defenseman and broke in alone against Harding -- only to have his wrister denied. Midway through, it looked like the Blackhawks scored a go-ahead goal when Kane chipped a puck into the crease from underneath prone Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon. Jonathan Toews batted it into the net, but the play was whistled dead before Kane touched it because officials lost sight of the puck.
"They blew the whistle before the puck went in, but I think we were just a little frustrated that their guy was laying on the puck," Toews said. "To me, the whistle blew as it finally popped loose, but that's the way it goes sometimes."
Chicago, which outshot Minnesota 22-14 in the last two periods of regulation, kept the pressure on late in the third. Harding came up huge to snare Shaw's slapper from the point with 3:07 remaining. Crawford also made a couple of big saves to keep the game tied.
Both teams had a power play in overtime. Oduya was called for high-sticking at 7:34, but Minnesota defenseman Tom Gilbert was called for holding Toews 68 seconds later.
The Blackhawks are well-versed in overtime. They went to OT 16 times in the regular season (losing only by shootout five times) and five of the six games in last year's first-round loss to the Coyotes ended in OT.
"What a big win," Crawford said. "I don't know what [else] to say."