The Chicago Blackhawks had to come out of the gate strong and make a statement in Game 5, and that’s exactly what they did as they scored three goals in the first period and eventually won a 5-4 decision on a double-overtime goal by Michal Handzus.
Of course, there were still plenty of negatives to consider, including the shaky play of Corey Crawford and the poor play of Kris Versteeg, but the positives finally shone through enough for the team to win and extend the series to a sixth game.
How can the Blackhawks win Game 6 on Friday at Staples Center and force a winner-take-all Game 7 on Sunday night at the United Center? To answer that question, here are our Three Keys to Victory for the Blackhawks.
Keep Communication Lines Open
Everyone was talking before Game 5 about how the Blackhawks had shuffled up their offensive lines, putting Patrick Kane with Andrew Shaw and Brandon Saad on the second line and reuniting the top line that had so much success early in the series. What very few people expected to happen was that head coach Joel Quenneville would shuffle up his defensive pairings too, with Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson forming a new top pairing and Johnny Oduya and Michal Rozsival teaming up in the second group.
As a result, the Blackhawks did a lot less assuming and a lot more communicating while they were on the ice. Instead of having guys figuring that their teammate would fill in a vacated spot on a pinch or on a rush the other way, the Hawks were yelling instructions at one another, and even though there were still some breakdowns, there weren’t nearly as many as there had been in the Game 4 loss in Los Angeles.
No matter what Quenneville decides to do in Game 6 with his defensive pairings, his team needs to continue that habit of communicating. It seems like such a trivial thing, but when you have guys vacating their positions, and when you have defensemen continually pinching in the offensive zone, making sure that coverage remains intact is critical in a situation like this. The Blackhawks have to be aggressive and intelligent in order to win this game.
Scoring Depth Even More Crucial Now
In the two games in Los Angeles earlier in the series, the Blackhawks suffered in a big way on the offensive side of things. Their top line looked great in Game 3, but in Game 4 nobody seemed willing to do the dirty work, much less to get any type of zone entry, as they fell meekly to the Kings.
This time around, the new line combinations that Quenneville has assembled have to continue pulling their weight. The second line will be especially critical, as it will likely be given increased scrutiny by Darryl Sutter and company as they can dictate the matchups as the home team. If Kane and Saad can continue to move the puck with the effectiveness they did in Game 5, then the Kings are either doing something wrong or are totally powerless to stop them.
In either case, the Hawks have to be able to push the issue with that line in order to open up space for other players like Toews and Patrick Sharp, who really could use a big game as well for Chicago.
Crawford Must Build on Game 5 Confidence
The Blackhawks are 9-1 in Game 6 situations under Quenneville, and that one loss came largely as a result of Corey Crawford’s poor play in net. The Blackhawks dominated the possession of the puck in that game and racked up shot after shot against Mike Smith and the Phoenix Coyotes, but Crawford couldn’t seem to find his rhythm in a 4-0 loss at the United Center.
This time around, Crawford is coming off of a game that should instill him with a lot more confidence. Yes, he did give up four goals in the first period and a half of the game Wednesday, but his demeanor was much calmer and more confident in the third period and in both overtime stanzas. He was moving around the crease better, seemed to track the puck more effectively, and in general played more like last year’s Conn Smythe candidate than this series’ loose cannon.
“In Game 5, Crawford was good enough. And for a goaltender who was suddenly expected to be less than that, his performance when it mattered most was important and possibly series-changing.”
Whether the Blackhawks get 2012 Crawford or 2013 Crawford will be absolutely critical in deciding their fate against the Kings on Friday night, but if his history is any indication, he could be on lockdown in this game after his stellar performance in the final few periods Wednesday.