ST. PAUL, Minn. — Corey Crawford made 34 saves, Patrick Kane had a goal and an assist, and the Chicago Blackhawks advanced to the Western Conference finals with a 4-3 victory over the Minnesota Wild on Thursday night for a four-game sweep.
The Wild never led in the series. Goals by Jared Spurgeon and Nino Niederreiter with 2:18 and 1:27 left gave them one last shot, with their net emptied. The final few whacks were either wide or turned aside by Crawford, who stopped 124 of 131 shots in the four games.
Brent Seabrook and Andrew Shaw scored for the Blackhawks, who were down to five defencemen after a serious injury to veteran Michal Roszival. Marian Hossa had a long empty-netter, and Jonathan Toews and Bryan Bickell had two assists apiece.
Chicago eliminated Minnesota from the playoffs for the third straight year. It won 12 of the 15 games.
It was the first sweep by the Blackhawks since the Western Conference finals in 2010 against San Jose. They improved to 30-0, including 5-0 in this post-season, when leading after two periods.
Devan Dubnyk made 21 saves for the Wild.
The Blackhawks have scored 12 times in the first period in 10 games this post-season, the key to keeping a firm grip on this series from start to finish. Their defence in the neutral zone has been as stingy as ever, able to force a turnover and spring their speedy attackers on the rush at just the right moments, and getting that first goal has given them more reason to hang back in protection of the lead and wait for mistakes they can pounce on.
The Blackhawks improved to 5-1 when scoring first in the playoffs this year.
Seabrook, one of their most offensively gifted defencemen, controlled a cross-ice pass by Bickell with his skate and stayed in stride to shoot from behind the circle as he eluded Kyle Brodziak’s back-check attempt. The puck skipped off Wild defenceman Marco Scandella’s shin and into the upper corner of the net on Dubnyk’s stick side.
Toews took the game’s first penalty, hooking early in the second period, and the Wild narrowly missed three prime chances to score on the power play, with defenceman Matt Dumba and centre Mikael Granlund taking the place of struggling wings Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek on the first unit.
As soon as Toews left the box, he picked up the puck and threaded a perfect pass to a streaking Marcus Kruger, who drew a hooking penalty on Nino Niederreiter. Then the Blackhawks scored on their power play, when Wild defenceman Nate Prosser tried to trap a loose puck underneath his leg but Shaw found it and knocked it between Dubnyk’s pads.
Vanek was dropped down to the third line, the most notable switch in a mild shuffle by coach Mike Yeo, along with Charlie Coyle moving to the wing on the first line and Prosser taking the place of Jordan Leopold. Yeo spoke of the importance of the Wild not straying from their structure and playing panicky despite the scoring slump, but he had to try something different.
Vanek had a breakaway when Rozsival lost his balance and fell backward while badly injuring his left leg, but Crawford went with Vanek’s deke to his backhand and brushed the shot aside with his blocker. Rozsival was helped off the ice, his left leg hanging limp without any weight on it.
Haula’s speed and energy on the fourth line was one positive for the Wild. Seconds after the stoppage for Rozsival’s departure, the 24-year-old centre sent in a rebound of Dumba’s slap shot that hit Crawford high.
That was the first goal by a Wild forward in a stretch of 177 minutes and 11 seconds since the middle of the second period of Game 1. Dumba scored in Game 2, the only other goal during that stretch as Crawford gained more and more confidence by the shot.
Haula had four goals and three assists for the Wild in 13 playoff games last year, but he fell out of the lineup down the stretch while the Wild accumulate more depth. That was his first score since Feb. 28.