CHICAGO – After back-to-back early exits from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Chicago Blackhawks have officially reacquainted themselves with the feeling of winning a postseason series.
Chicago scored three goals in the second period and ended the Minnesota Wild's season by winning 5-1 on Thursday night at United Center in Game 5 of their Western Conference Quarterfinal series.
The victory moved them into the conference semifinals -- but to hear coach Joel Quenneville tell it, the Blackhawks still have to raise their game.
"I think we still have to get a different type of pace to our game that's catching up to the other series that are being played and what the playoffs are all about," coach Joel Quenneville said. "It's not the regular season. There's another appetite that we have to get, as well.
I don't think we should be happy with where we're at with our play and let's get angry as we go along here."
It's hard to believe Quenneville could have a lot to be angry about.
Marian Hossa scored a pair of goals – his second and third of the playoffs – while Corey Crawford (21 saves) played spectacularly in goal, especially in the first 20 minutes. He earned his fourth win of the postseason and officially avenged a less-than-stellar performance in last year's first-round loss to the Phoenix Coyotes.
"I put it behind me, but there were definitely things I took with me from last year, whether it [was] mistakes I made or good stuff I did," Crawford said. "You always want to learn from your mistakes, and that's the only way you can get better. In certain situations, I definitely learned from last year and it helped me this year."
One of those instances happened after he allowed a goal to Cal Clutterbuck on the first shot he saw in the opener – a shot that Crawford admitted he should have stopped. Rather than letting it get to him, Crawford didn't allow another goal in that game, which the Blackhawks won in overtime.
He limited the Wild to six goals in the next four games to help the Blackhawks polish off the series. Midway through the second period Thursday night, instead of a stream of criticism, Crawford heard fans going crazy chanting his name. He appreciated it, even if it happened 10 seconds before Torrey Mitchell scored the Wild's only goal.
"Twenty-two thousand people chanting that?" Crawford said, smiling. "Maybe caught a couple seconds of it."
Crawford wasn't the only reason for the packed house at United Center to cheer.
Fourth-line center Marcus Kruger, third-line center Andrew Shaw and star left wing Patrick Sharp also scored for Chicago, which continued to display a balanced attack that has made this team reminiscent of the one that won the Stanley Cup three years ago.
Players who are still around from that team are reluctant to make comparisons, but that championship run was the last time the Blackhawks won a playoff series – yet another accomplishment this year's team can cross off its "to do" list. Chicago also won the Presidents' Trophy for most points in the regular season (77) to earn the home-ice advantage for as far as it goes in the playoffs.
"It's always good to win at home, and it's been a while since we've won a series," said Sharp, whose fifth goal of the series early in the third completed the scoring. "The guys that have been around know the feeling. Some of the newer guys know that we hope to be playing much longer and games are only going to get tougher as we go along here. Hopefully we can raise our level next round."
Facing elimination, the Wild came out strong. Minnesota pushed hard for an early lead and quickly put heat on Crawford. He stopped all 10 shots he faced and helped kill off an early Wild power play.
That helped the Blackhawks turn the tide. They went ahead on Hossa's first goal – a snap shot from the left circle that beat Minnesota goaltender Josh Harding to the short side at 15:39. The pass came from Chicago captain Jonathan Toews, whose assist was his first point of the playoffs.
It didn't take long for Hossa and Kruger to extend the lead early in the second. Kruger scored on a wraparound between Harding's pads at 3:19 and Hossa made it 3-0 a little more than three minutes later by outmuscling Harding for the puck in the crease and sliding it home with a backhand.
Mitchell made it 3-1 at 10:11 with a snap shot from the slot, but Shaw scored his first career playoff goal 35 seconds later against Darcy Kuemper, who relieved Harding after Hossa's second goal, to restore Chicago's three-goal lead.
Harding made the start despite leaving Game 4 after one period with an undisclosed lower-body injury. The Wild were already without starter Niklas Backstrom, who got hurt in warmups before Game 1 and didn't play at all in the series due to a lower-body injury.
After all three goalies participated in the Wild's morning skate, Harding told Minnesota coach Mike Yeo he was OK to make the start – further shouldering the load after missing most of the regular season dealing with effects of medication to deal with his multiple sclerosis.
"It's a great story for him, the fact that he was playing," Yeo said. "There's not too many people around who would've given us much of a chance if [Backstrom] wasn't great, but [he] went down and [Harding] stepped in and did a great job for us. I know that he doesn't want to talk about it, but considering what he's gone through and what he's had to endure to be there for us, it was good for him."
Chicago will face either the sixth-seeded San Jose Sharks – who swept the Vancouver Canucks – or the seventh-seeded Detroit Red Wings, who must beat the Anaheim Ducks on Friday night to extend their series to a seventh game.
"It doesn't matter who it's going to be," Toews said. "It's going to be a tough opponent. We can expect that much and prepare ourselves the best we can for whatever might come the second round."