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Blackhawks sweep Wild, move on to Western Conference Final

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Blackhawks sweep Wild, move on to Western Conference Final

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Coach Joel Quenneville could smile about it at the post-game press conference, the fact that Marian Hossa’s 4-on-6, empty-net goal, which gave the Blackhawks a 4-1 lead at the time, ended up being a game-winner.

“Yeah, it turns out Hoss scored a big goal,” Quenneville said with a grin. “Very timely.”

It wasn’t the ending the Blackhawks drew up, scrambling as a frenzied, desperate Minnesota Wild scored twice in the final two-plus minutes of regulation. But it was ultimately just a bit of drama in an otherwise impressive four-game sweep.

Hossa’s first goal of this postseason was the game winner, and Corey Crawford stopped 34 of 37 shots as the Blackhawks beat the Wild 4-3 in Game 4 of their second-round series on Thursday night. The Blackhawks eliminated the Wild in impressive fashion and now will wait and see what team they play in the Western Conference Finals. It’s the fifth time in the last seven seasons the Blackhawks advanced to that round.

Patrick Kane scored his fifth goal of this series in the third period to give the Blackhawks a 3-1 lead at the time. Kane, whose goal total was just two less than the Wild as a team (seven), now has 104 points in 103 career postseason games. Brent Seabrook and Andrew Shaw (power play) also scored for the Blackhawks.

The sweeping victory, however, came with a loss. Michal Rozsival fell awkwardly, twisting his left foot/ankle, while defending Tomas Vanek in the second period. Rozsival was down for several moments and had to be helped to the locker room. He was putting no weight on his left leg as he left the ice.

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“Tough loss. Doesn’t look good,” said Quenneville, who will obviously have to look at his defensive possibilities before the Western Conference Finals begin.

Quenneville will have time to figure that out, however, thanks to the Blackhawks’ second playoff sweep since 2010 (the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference Finals that year). Still, for a game that looked like it was finished when Hossa’s goal made it 4-1 with 3:07 remaining in regulation, the ending was harrowing. Jason Pominville scored a power-play goal with 2:18 remaining in regulation and then Nino Niederreiter scored with 1:27 left to cut Chicago’s lead to 4-3. The Blackhawks, who went on another penalty kill with 14.9 seconds remaining, held off the Wild’s final desperate chances.

“Obviously not a textbook finish but still found a way,” said Crawford. “We made it hard on ourselves [late] but other than that we played a great hockey game. We were solid defensively. We knew they’d give everything they could to get back in the series. It’s an exciting finish, to say the least.”

And that finish has the Blackhawks in very familiar territory with the conference finals. It also had some of the veteran Blackhawks, who have been here and done this before, nevertheless celebrating like it’s a new feeling.

“It was pretty pumped up. It was little more reserved than years past, but guys felt pretty good about it,” said Patrick Sharp of the Blackhawks’ room. “We appreciate how hard it is to win a playoff series, to beat a team like Minnesota. We’re proud of the accomplishment to get out of the division. We think it’s a pretty tough division to play in. [We have a] ton of enthusiasm going forward. We can’t wait to get back in the conference finals and try to win another series.”

The Blackhawks ended their regular season with a four-game losing streak, leading some to wonder how the postseason would go. It’s been all right thus far. They weathered some defensive and goaltending issues in thefirst round and got better in those areas, as well as the penalty kill, in the second round.

“I think it just shows that we like playing at this time of year. It’s the best time of year to play,” Kane said. “When you think of the playoffs, going through the whole process of going round-by-round and [getting] a new matchup with a different team every time, it’s fun for us and we get excited. We have great fans at our backs. The weather gets a little nicer. The city of Chicago starts buzzing a little bit. It is just a fun city to play in.”

It’s a true sign of what this franchise has been able to do in recent years, through roster changes and mini rebuilds. The Blackhawks had an interesting final few minutes to an otherwise stellar four-game round and are conference final-bound again.

“It’s a great achievement by a group of guys,” Quenneville said. “For a lot of those guys who have been here for all seven years, there have been ups and downs but for the most part, when you begin in the playoffs, we believe we have a chance to win. The guys, game in and game out, they show that by how they compete.”

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 3-2 loss to Blue Jackets: Looking at the bigger picture

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 3-2 loss to Blue Jackets: Looking at the bigger picture

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks' 3-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena on Saturday night:

1. Blackhawks squander two leads.

For the 13th time in their past 16 games, the Blackhawks scored the first goal of the game. They had won their previous three instances when doing so, but couldn't seal the deal this time and fell to 5-6-2 in those 13 games.

What strung even more is that the Blackhawks held two one-goal leads and couldn't hang on to either of them. They have the seventh-worst win percentage (.571) when scoring the first goal this season with a 20-10-5 record.

2. Vinnie Hinostroza continues to produce offensively.

If you're trying to look for a rare bright spot on the Blackhawks roster this season, here's one. Hinostroza registered a secondary assist on David Kampf's goal for his fifth point in six games, and was on the ice for 16 shot attempts for and seven against during 5-on-5 play for a team-leading shot attempt differential of plus-9 (also known as Corsi).

For the season, Hinostroza has 20 points (six goals, 14 assists) in 32 games and he's doing so while averaging only 13:27 of ice time. His point-per-game average is up to 0.63, which is tied with Jonathan Toews for third on the team; only Patrick Kane (0.92) and Nick Schmaltz (0.71) are producing at a higher rate.

Hinostroza deserves more minutes, but at the same time his ability to produce on any of the four lines has allowed Joel Quenneville to put him in a bottom six role for balance.

"I like his speed," Quenneville said recently on why Hinostroza has been so effective. "I think with the puck, he's been good with it as well. More strength, on it, managing it, better decisions with it, and good plays off it. He definitely brings you energy and some speed, he can catch people with that quickness."

3. Ryan Hartman's benching.

Hartman was part of the fourth line that contributed to the Blackhawks' first goal of the game, and he was on his way to having a strong one. But that changed quickly after he took an ill-advised penalty in the first period.

Already leading 1-0, the Blackhawks had a 2-on-1 opportunity developing involving Hinostroza and David Kampf but Hartman was whistled for high-sticking at 17:06 behind the play. The Blue Jackets converted on the power play, and that was the end of Hartman's night.

He took only five shifts and finished with a season-low 4:16 of ice time, with Quenneville using it as an opportunity for a teaching moment.

4. Tomas Jurco building confidence back up.

It's been a tough season mentally for Jurco. He started the season with the AHL's Rockford IceHogs after failing to make the team out of camp, and compiled 25 points (13 goals, 12 assists) in 36 games. 

It earned him a call-up on Jan. 8, with Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman praising the way he progressed: "He looks like he's totally different, in terms of his composure and ability to make plays. That's why we brought him up here."

The problem? He was a healthy scratch for five straight games and went two weeks without seeing game action with the Blackhawks. Not exactly the best way to keep someone's confidence building. And since then, he's been fighting for a spot in the lineup.

For the last three games, Jurco has been given a shot on the second line with Artem Anisimov and Patrick Kane and he cashed in for his first goal of the season tonight and first since March 27, 2017. It's also the second straight game he's recorded a point.

While he may not be worth much if the Blackhawks were to deal him ahead of Monday's deadline, perhaps a change of scenery to a team that believes in him as a fit will bring out the best of his abilities. The Blackhawks tried and it just hasn't worked out.

5. Blue line observation.

This is more of a big-picture takeaway, but the Blackhawks have gotten only 20 goals from their defensemen this season. The Blue Jackets have gotten a combined 19 from just Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. Last season the Blackhawks had 30 total.

The Blackhawks just haven't gotten the offensive production needed from their back end and it's so important as it helps alleviate some of the pressure off the forwards.

I asked Quenneville about this after Friday's game and here's what he had to say: "Whether you score or not, you need the D to be part of your attack, be it off the rush, in zone. But I think the whole game, the whole league is four-man rush game, five-man attacks, coming at you, night-in, night-out, wave after wave.

"But you need to get your D involved in your support on the attack and you need them on the offensive zone off the point. You need some shooters on the back end that can get them through as well. I think offensive production from the back end in today’s game really enhances your offense and your possession game."

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks hit road to face Blue Jackets

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NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks hit road to face Blue Jackets

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Columbus Blue Jackets tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. One big reunion.

The Blackhawks will square off with the Blue Jackets for the first time since Oct. 7, which was the second game of the season. In that game, they won 5-1 led by Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad, each of whom scored a goal and added an assist.

Of course, that was the first game since the offseason trade that sent Artemi Panarin to Columbus and Saad back to Chicago, along with Anton Forsberg. Artem Anisimov, of course, was part of the original deal that sent Saad to Columbus in 2015, so there are a lot of emotional ties between the two teams.

Forsberg didn't get a chance to face the Blue Jackets in the first meeting, but there's a chance he will this time with it being the second of a back-to-back and Jean-Francois Berube getting the start in Friday's 3-1 win over San Jose.

2. Panarin and Kane bromance.

The emotions of a difficult break-up have probably died down by now, but Panarin and Kane gave us this moment at center ice during pregame warmups in their first game against each other and it hit Chicago right in the feels:

Panarin has spent enough time apart from Kane for people to realize how big of a star he is in his own right, leading the Blue Jackets in all three scoring categories: goals (17), assists (32) and points (49).

He hasn't gone more than three games this season without recording a point, and is looking to extend his point streak to four games, which would tie a season high.

3. Struggling Blue Jackets special teams.

The Blue Jackets got off to a great start but are barely clinging onto a wild card spot going into Saturday's game, and a big reason for that slide is their lack of success on special teams. Usually one can pick up the slack for the other, but they've been brutal in both departments.

The Blue Jackets are 0-for-9 on the power play in their past five games and are ranked 31st overall, converting on only 14.1 percent of their opportunities. They also have own the 27th-ranked penalty kill with a 76.3 percent success rate.

So if there's an area the Blackhawks can exploit, it's that. But, you know, still be mindful of that Russian winger's one-timer from the faceoff circle.