Blackhawks

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.”

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Is Crawford ready to go?

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USA TODAY

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Is Crawford ready to go?

Jimmy Greenfield, Connor McKnight, and Matt Spiegel join Kap on the panel to discuss Corey Crawford back on the ice for the first time in 10 months. The Bears have good news when it comes to Khalil Mack, who injured his ankle against the Dolphins.

Plus, Fred Hoiberg announces that Jabari Parker is coming off the bench for the season opener.

Listen to the full episode here or via the embedded player below:

Niklas Hjalmarsson 'wasn't happy' about trade, but remembers time with Blackhawks fondly

Niklas Hjalmarsson 'wasn't happy' about trade, but remembers time with Blackhawks fondly

Apparently time doesn’t heal all wounds. 

Nearly a year and a half since being traded to the Coyotes, Niklas Hjalmarsson will return to the United Center ice on Thursday playing for the visiting team.  

“It’s going to be strange coming in as the away team and being in the other locker room,” said Hjalmarsson on Wednesday. “I bet it’s going to be a lot of emotions and mixed feelings.” 

This is also the first time Hjalmarsson has been back to the city of Chicago since he was traded, a city he called his “second home.” A home where he spent parts of 10 seasons, and never really planned on leaving.

“I wasn’t happy, to be honest with you,” said Hjalmarsson of the trade to Arizona. “I was shocked. It took me a couple days to actually realize I wasn’t going to play for the Hawks anymore.”

Including the playoffs, Hjalmarsson played 751 games in the Indian head sweater. Despite that and the team’s three Stanley Cup victories, the Blackhawks shipped him off to Arizona for Connor Murphy and Laurent Dauphin in June of 2017.

“You kind of let it go after a while,” he said. “Now I’m just hoping all the success for the guys over here too.”

Hjalmarsson was known for his toughness, repeatedly blocking shot after shot, giving up his body, while never missing a shift. He credits his long-time teammates — Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook — for a lot of his success and identity on the blue line.

“I couldn’t have had better role models coming into a team,” he said. “I’m very thankful to have played on the same team as those guys and created a lot of success together. We’re always going to be connected with the Cups that we’ve had.”

The third championship won by that defense-trio was on United Center ice against the Lightning in 2015, but that isn’t the memory that stands out most for Hjalmarsson.

“The first Cup is always going to be pretty special,” said the 31-year old. “Even just going to the conference final (in 2009), even when we lost against Detroit that year, the year before was great memories too. The first time for me going into the playoffs and playing deep.”

The tables have turned now for both Hjalmarsson and the Blackhawks. 

The Coyotes have yet to score an even-strength goal this season, while the Blackhawks have claimed eight of a possible 10 points thus far through five games and expect to have their starting goaltender back between the pipes. 

But you won’t hear any ill-will from Hjalmarsson, he’s still rooting for the Hawks.

“I always think that Chicago deserves to have a team in the playoffs,” he said. “It’s not that I wish them not to do well. It’s the total opposite. I want them to have continued success.”