Phoenix win their first series in 25 years; Chicago's season is over
The Chicago Blackhawks finally found their game.
Unfortunately, it came in game 6 in a first-round series where they were down 3-2, and they were up against a goaltender who was having the game of his life.
On Monday night in Chicago, the Blackhawks came out on fire. They grabbed a hold of the game, and put a stranglehold on it. They nearly had shots on goal into the double digits before the Coyotes registered their first; they blocked shots; they scooped the puck away from Phoenix with such ease that it was almost like watching an NHL team play against an AHL one.
This is the team that Blackhawks fans have been looking for all season. The defense was solid, making the plays necessary to cover their own mistakes. The forwards were aggressive. They were hitting, they were blocking. Their single power play was unfruitful, but they at least killed off the first penalty. Every player was shooting, peppering the opposing goalie. In short, they looked like a cohensive, offensive powerhouse - everything that the Blackhawks are supposed to be, yet which has struggled and at times disappeared this season.
At the other end of the ice, however, was Mike Smith, who turned away 16 SOG in the first period, while Corey Crawford had to deal with just 2. No matter what the Blackhawks shoveled at him, he had an answer for it. And if he was caught out of his net, his teammates were covering for him, protecting the net to prevent opportunities.
The Blackhawks onslaught continued through most of the second, until Jonathan Toews was called on an interference penalty. Finally, somebody scored during the penalty - unfortunately for Chicago, it was Phoenix, who scored on only their 6th SOG.
Chicago kept pressing, finishing out the second with a 28-8 SOG differential but the score still 1-0. And in the third, perhaps sensing the Blackhawks' frustration after the Coyotes scored their second goal 2:24 into the period, and with the atmosphere in the United Center rapidly deflating, Phoenix began pushing back. The Blackhawks couldn't find the same tempo and pressure they had kept up for the first 40 minutes, and - unlike the five games that had come before, they couldn't push the visitors into overtime. Phoenix outshot Chicago 12-11 in the final frame, and finished the game with a 4-0 shutout.
For the Coyotes, it is unfamiliar territory to win a playoff series. They were swept by the Red Wings 4-0 last season. In 2010, the Wings also knocked Phoenix out of the playoffs in the first round after the Coyotes pushed them to 7 games. In fact, the Coyotes haven't seen the second round of the playoffs since 1987, when they were still the (original) Winnipeg Jets. Shane Doan, who was drafted by the Jets and who debuted for them in their last season before they moved to Phoenix (1995-96), has been to the playoffs 8 times with the franchise and never been past the first round.
Like the other three teams remaining alive in the West - the Kings, the Blues, and the Predators - the Coyotes play a style in which a defense-first system is adhered to with rigidity, backed by stingy goaltending. Is this the future of the NHL, or is it simply a coincidence that these are the four teams to emerge out of the tightly-contested West? Hockey experts are falling over one another to proclaim this a "changing of the guard", but are hockey fans as a whole ready to embrace a low-scoring style?
After the game, Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews stated, "I think you saw the will and desire. I don't think you saw all our talent. I feel like we had so much more than what we ended up showing, but we gave it everything. It just didn't go our way."
The same could be said of most of the Blackhawks' season this year.
Chicago faces a lot of questions going into the summer. The core will remain intact, but once again the fringe players will change. The Blackhawks still need a second-line center. The team still needs solutions for its PK, which probably be addressed by a assistant coaching change - it just hasn't been the same since Mike Kitchen joined the team after the team won the Cup in 2010.
In the meantime, four teams who have never won a Stanley Cup will be battling it out for supremecy in the West.