Blackhawks look to clinch berth to second round of playoffs tonight
It's been three long years since the Blackhawks last saw the second round of the playoffs.
A battered and bruised Chicago team took the Canucks to the brink, losing in overtime of game seven on Vancouver ice in 2011. Last season, the Blackhawks took the Coyotes to overtime five consecutive games - and ultimately lost in game six.
The team is better this year: not just talent- and chemistry-wise, but coming off a record, albeit shortened, season. Coach Joel Quenneville has been able to consistently roll four lines without his trademarked "line combination blender"; Corey Crawford and Ray Emery split time in the net so well that they walked away with the William M. Jennings Trophy this season.
At the other end of the ice tonight is the Minnesota Wild, who hope to extend their first playoff season since 2008 into the second round. The Wild haven't been past the first round in the playoffs since 2003, and they are the underdog in this series, paired up against the Presidents' Trophy-winning Blackhawks.
The Wild are down 1-3 vs Chicago, and are also down where it hurts a team most in the playoffs: their goaltending.
Minnesota's top goalie, Niklas Backstrom, was injured in warmups during game 1. Josh Harding took the cage and held the Wild to a 2-1 deficit. During Tuesday's game in St. Paul, however, he and Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews collided during a play at the net at the end of the first period, and backup Darcy Kuemper finished out the game, a 3-0 win for Chicago.
Coach Mike Yeo has been coy about who'll start in goal for Minnesota tonight. Yeo has said he didn't want to tip his hand to Chicago, but reports out of morning skate today indicated that both Harding and Backstrom looked like they were laboring, but after practice, Yeo said that Harding would start and Kuemper would be backup. Should Harding struggle in warmups tonight, Kuemper might get the call instead.
The Blackhawks have a goalie injury as well; backup Ray Emery was recently injured and remains day-to-day, and Henrik Karlsson is currently slotted in for backup duties. Corey Crawford leads all playoff goalies with 3 wins, a shut out, 1.39 GAA, and a .949 sv%, which should be enough to silence his critics for now.
Chicago knows its game could be better, however. Crawford was the reason the Blackhawks hung in for an overtime loss in game 3, and Crawford stood tall against the Wild's onslaught on Tuesday. Chicago players know they haven't done their best in this series, yet they're still up 3-1.
That's why the Wild still has hope. Minnesota has given the Blackhawks plenty of competition both in the regular season and the playoffs - the Wild gave them their first loss of the year, a shootout loss in game seven.
But in the playoffs, shootouts are gone, and the Blackhawks won all 5 overtime (non-shootout) decisions they faced in the regular season. The Chicago players still remember the sting of last season's game 6, and they're not about to let another team punch their ticket to the Western Semi-Finals again if they can help it.
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Time: 8:30 p.m. CDT
Blackhawks record: 3-0-1
OpponentName record: 1-2-1
Tonight's promotional giveaway: playoff rally towels
Location: United Center, 1901 W. Madison, Chicago
Where to watch: NBCSN, CSN-Chicago, CBC, RDS2
Where to listen: WGN 720 (phone app available)