Going into Thursday night’s game against the Minnesota Wild, the Chicago Blackhawks were in unfamiliar territory. For only the second time since April of 2007 (last season’s finale against the St. Louis Blues is the other time), the Hawks hit the ice without Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane in the lineup, and in going up against a team securely in a wild card spot for the playoffs, they surely knew they were in for a tough challenge.
Despite giving up a late goal that tied the game up, the Hawks did eventually win the game on Marian Hossa’s shootout tally, grabbing a 3-2 victory and clinching at least the third seed in the Central Division (and all but guaranteeing that they will face the Colorado Avalanche in the first round of the postseason). Without further adieu, here were the team’s Three Stars of the victory:
Third Star: Ben Smith
Wherever he has been placed in the lineup in recent weeks, Smith has been a dynamo on both sides of the puck, and it was his willingness to get to the dirty areas of the ice that ended up paying dividends as the Hawks tied the game in the early stages of the second period of Thursday’s game.
On the play, Kris Versteeg got the puck along the boards, and quickly dished it back to the point. Nick Leddy kicked over to the middle of the ice, and fired a shot in towards the goal. Minnesota goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov made the initial save, and then made another one as Brandon Saad made a diving shot attempt at the net. When Bryzgalov couldn’t cover the puck up, Smith was there to collect the rebound and deposit a shot into the net to make it a 1-1 game.
It wasn’t the most difficult of goals, but Smith’s quick hands, good positioning, and instincts all came together perfectly in that moment, and he was rewarded with a goal as a result.
Second Star: Corey Crawford
Crawford has been having a pretty solid season, but he still occasionally makes an error that tosses fresh fuel onto the ever-smoldering fire that burns beneath his critics in the Hawks’ fanbase.
That goal came in the late stages of the third period of this game, as he allowed a goal to Erik Haula with less than two minutes remaining to tie the game up at 2-2. On the play, Haula jumped into the offensive zone after getting a pass from Justin Fontaine, and he fired a shot that went between Niklas Hjalmarsson’s legs. Crawford got a glove on it despite the screen, but it wasn’t enough as the puck tumbled into the net.
Crawford’s positioning on the goal wasn’t quite up to snuff, as he was playing too deep in the crease and didn’t have Haula centered up on the shot, but instead of hanging his head at the technical miscue, Crawford dug deep and came up with some big saves in the overtime period and in the shootout. He stopped all three shots he faced in the shootout, and made Hossa’s slapshot goal stand up as the Hawks snapped their three game losing streak.
After the game, Crawford told reporters that he felt responsible for the team’s predicament, and that he wanted to step up to atone for his error:
Crawford on coming up big in the shootout after late goal: "I didn't have a choice. I felt I needed to come back and shut the door."
— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) April 4, 2014
People can mock Crawford all they want for his perceived flaws (bad glove hand, etc), but the fact of the matter is that he is largely a technically sound goaltender, and even when he has brief hiccups, he responds to them in a big way, just like he did on Thursday.
First Star: Bryan Bickell
Even before the ink was dry on the new four-year contract that kept him in the Windy City, Bickell has been fighting a constant battle with those who criticized the deal and said that he was an overpaid player. He has also dealt frequently with head coach Joel Quenneville’s wrath this season, getting benched and scratched at several points.
On Thursday night, Bickell rejoined the lineup after a six game absence, and despite playing less than 10 minutes in the contest, Bickell made his presence known. He scored a goal in the third period of the game to give his team the lead, and he ended up with four shots on goal and a hit in 9:56 of ice time.
His goal was the culmination of a really smart and solid play by some Hawks role players. After Peter Regin lost a draw in the offensive zone, Jeremy Morin made a nifty forecheck and stole the puck back. Bickell immediately bolted for the net, and Morin found him with a pass. Bryzgalov was able to stop the first attempt, but Bickell got the puck back, turned his hands over, and flipped a shot just under the crossbar and into the top of the net to make it a 2-1 contest.
Bickell is usually described as a physical player with the ability score goals, and even though he didn’t really live up to the first part of that description in this one, it was the second half of the phrase that ended up paying off in the Hawks’ victory.