The Chicago Blackhawks needed a big win to get back into their Western Conference playoff series against the St. Louis Blues, and that’s exactly what they got as they shut out the Blues by a score of 2-0 on Monday night.
The Hawks still trail 2-1 in the series, but they at least are in the win column now, and it was the play of their Three Stars that did it.
Third Star: Ben Smith
We’ve been singing the praises of Smith’s versatility for quite a while now, but he had it on full display once again on Monday night. Rather than playing his usual assortment of even strength and penalty killing time, Smith instead was thrust onto the second line at times during the game, spelling Michal Handzus and creating some scoring chances as he skated with Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp.
Smith ended up with two shots on goal in the game, including a wicked spinning shot that took Ryan Miller completely by surprise and nearly gave the Hawks a critical insurance goal, but his biggest impact was simply allowing Handzus to rest in between penalty killing opportunities. The Hawks are cautious about pulling the veteran out of the lineup because of his ability in that area, and having the flexibility to put Smith into that second line center role, or a penalty killing winger role, or really any other role imaginable, gives Joel Quenneville a lot of leverage in determining matchups in games.
Second Star: Michal Handzus
Speaking of Handzus, there’s no way that we could talk about Monday’s game without praising the excellent effort he put out. He ended up with an assist on Marcus Kruger’s empty net goal late in the third period, and more critically played nearly four minutes of short-handed ice time as the Hawks’ penalty killing unit continued its stellar play as of late.
Early in the third period, the Hawks were facing a power play after Kruger was sent to the box for holding. It was a critical moment in the game, because St. Louis had come out of the gate firing in the period, and the Blackhawks were clinging to their one goal lead. Handzus ended up saving the day during that sequence, blocking two shots and clearing the puck to help his team remain perfect on the kill.
Late in the third, Handzus was at it again, but this time he did things a little differently. With the Blues trying to get an attack building in the neutral zone, Handzus made a brilliant diving play to disrupt the passing lane that was developing, and eventually forced the puck down ice. Brandon Saad rushed down the ice to retrieve it, and Kruger popped it into the net to get the Hawks back in the series.
Handzus ended up with three shots blocked in the game, and along with Niklas Hjalmarsson really took a beating as he sacrificed his body for the good of the team. It was a perfect display of why he still gets a slot in the Hawks’ lineup, and if Quenneville can continue to feed Smith even strength minutes and Handzus penalty killing minutes, it’s a great strategy to use.
First Star: Corey Crawford
There really isn’t much to be said about Crawford’s performance other than this: for a guy who said that he had to be better after Saturday’s loss, he certainly delivered in a big way.
The Blues continued to throw gobs of traffic his way whenever they could, and despite the hulking presence of guys like Steve Ott, or the shifty presence of guys like TJ Oshie, Crawford handled every possible St. Louis opportunity with aplomb, and he made every save on every type of shot imaginable.
Take his performance during Bryan Bickell’s hooking minor for example. On a shot from the point, Ott was right in the blue paint with him, and Crawford was still able to make the initial save. Ott then wheeled around with the puck and tried to force it into the net, but Crawford stood his ground and smothered the puck before his teammates could rush to his aid. Crawford then finished off that power play by snaring a shot with his glove that Alex Steen blasted from the point, drawing cheers from the raucous United Center crowd.
Crawford was still at his best late in the game, a time where he had faltered in two consecutive contests. His kick save on a redirect from Oshie was a thing of beauty, as he flared out his left pad to barely push the puck past the net. He also gloved aside a shot from Alex Pietrangelo that was destined for the top corner of the cage, and when Kruger finally scored the empty netter, Crawford celebrated about as emphatically as anyone else in the building.
Some fans and media members continue to question Crawford’s credentials, but it’s games like Monday night’s contest that should really put those concerns to bed. Crawford is a goaltender that will occasionally have lapses, but then again, which guy doesn’t have off nights? Needless to say, his “on” nights far outweigh the bad ones, and he showed again on Monday why he’s one of the most under-appreciated goaltenders in the league.