There was plenty of the perfunctory talk about how this series was tighter than Chicago’s 3-0 lead over the Wild might suggest.
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville talked about how much better the Wild has been than a year ago, or the year before. Defenseman Brent Seabrook talked about how tight every game has been.
That said, it’s clear this is a very confident team heading into Game 4 Thursday night at Xcel Energy Center. The Blackhawks, by their own admission, are playing their best hockey of the season. And that can’t be good news to Wild fans.
“We started the playoffs with some goals allowed, some broken plays we didn’t like,” defenseman Johnny Oduya said. “But [lately] we’ve been playing good, and done the right things. We’ve been playing the way we know we can.’’
Much of that is due to a guy who wasn’t expected to be playing yet, and a goalie who wasn’t expected to play this well.
Patrick Kane was tied for the NHL’s scoring lead when he suffered a clavicle injury Feb. 24. He wasn’t expected to return until the conference finals. But he was back in time for the start of the playoffs. And, after getting two goals and seven points in six games vs. Nashville, Kane has scored four goals in three games vs. the Wild. It was his power-play goal Tuesday that deflated the home crowd and turned out to be the only goal in Chicago’s 1-0 victory.
Crawford, of course, has been nearly impregnable, stopping 90 of 94 shots in the series, including 60 of the past 61.
Of the two, Kane’s performance has even awed his teammates. Even Quenneville said Kane looked as good in this series as he did before he got hurt. So much for rust.
“He’s got a lot of pride,” Seabrook said. “He wants to play. He wanted to play the last couple of games of the season, but we needed him for the playoffs. It seemed it took him 20 minutes in the first game [vs. Nashville] to get back up to speed. And he was flying again. It’s a special guy to be able to do that.”
After a rocky start against Nashville, after a sit-down with Quenneville, Crawford was put back in the nets vs. the Wild and has responded.
The Hawks defense, which some felt might be vulnerable, has been rock-solid. That plus diligent backchecking by the forwards has shut the Wild down, especially the top line.
After Game 1 of the series, when the Hawks allowed the Wild to bounce back from an early 3-0 deficit to tie the score, Quenneville asked his team for more. His team was gambling too much, allowing too many scoring opportunities. Since then? Quenneville called Game 2 the best game his team had played in these playoffs. Tuesday’s game wasn’t far behind.
And now Chicago will try to end this series in Thursday’s fourth game. Having won two Stanley Cups since 2010, these Hawks are experienced at closing series out.
“We know what’s at stake, and we know they know,” Oduya said. “It’s the type of game you want to be in. But with that said, we know how we have to play.”
Said center Andrew Shaw: “It’s experience. We’ve played in these games before. We have to expect a hungry team. They’re not going down without fighting. … We have to keep doing the same things. If Corey keeps standing on his head, and the defense keeps clearing the pucks, we should have success.”