Here’s the eighth entry of our 10-week Throwback Thursday series (only two more to go!), counting down to the Hawks’ home opener on Thursday, October 5. Today, it’s a second-round series sweep of the Minnesota Wild that was keyed by the still-somehow-underrated Blackhawks’ netminder.
For three straight seasons, beginning in 2012-13, the Chicago Blackhawks faced the Minnesota Wild in a playoff series. Nothing breeds contempt between teams like multiple playoff matchups, yet it never felt like there was much hostility between these two teams, did it? Part of that likely stems from how one-sided it was, with the Hawks winning all three. And I imagine there are plenty of Minnesota fans who hold Chicago at the top of their list of teams to hate.
But from a Chicago perspective? I can’t summon much anger for any of the players on the Wild. Zach Parise scored the biggest USA Hockey goal of my lifetime (post Miracle on Ice, essentially). Ryan Suter never bothered me. Matt Cooke was/is deplorable, but his crimes against hockey were largely committed against other teams and when he was with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund ... none of those names draw any hostile reaction from me.
The 2014-15 Wild seemed destined for a deep playoff run
Devan Dubnyk was acquired by the Wild on January 15, 2015, from the goalie hell that was the Edmonton Oilers franchise, and Minnesota then seemed incapable of losing. In a two-month stretch of games between late January and late March, Minnesota went 24-5-1, rocketing up the standings and into a playoff spot. Dubnyk went 27-9-2 with the Wild that regular season, with a dazzling 1.78 GAA and a .936 SA%. He’d win the Masterton Trophy, earn an All-Star nod, and finish in the top four for the Vezina and Hart Trophies. He was the media darling that year. He helped the Wild dispatch the St. Louis Blues in six games, setting up a second-round showdown with the Blackhawks.
The goalie situation wasn’t as pleasant in Chicago
A full-blown goalie controversy had erupted. Corey Crawford was chased in Game 1 of Chicago’s opening-round series with the Nashville Predators and then surrendered six goals in a Game 2 loss. Backup Scott Darling, who relieved Crawford in Game 1, was named the starter for Game 3. He won that game and made an incredible 50 saves while picking up another win in Game 4’s triple-overtime marathon. But he didn’t look as sharp in a Game 5 loss and was yanked after allowing three goals in 12 shots in Game 6. Crawford finished that series-ending sixth game, but every bar in and around Chicago was the setting for expletive-laden debates over who should handle the net for the Hawks in the second round.
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville went with Crawford
And how did Crawford respond? By drastically outperforming the goalie who would finish ahead of Crawford in the vote for every award based on subjective opinions (Hart, Vezina) but not the one based on statistical facts (Jennings).
Crawford made 30 saves in a 4-3 Game 1 victory and made 30 more while coasting to a 4-1 win in Game 2. He went a step further in Game 3, repelling all 30 shots on goal (for real, 30 saves again) that the Wild could muster in this one. And that shutout came in spite of Minesota posting a 61.3 CF% share of possession in the game.
Crawford was dynamite again in Game 4, especially in a wild final 87 seconds, after a 4-1 Hawks lead dwindled to 4-3. Minnesota threw the kitchen and bathroom sinks at Crawford while trying to get the game-tying, season-saving goal. But the Wild came up empty, with Crawford making save after save in that final flurry, even overcoming a Patrik Stefan-like moment from Jonathan Toews. He finished with thirty ... four saves.
It was a signature series for a goalie who’s had several of those in his career. In the four games of this series, Crawford stopped 124 of the 131 shots he saw (.947 SA%) to go with his sparkling 1.75 GAA. After a rough start to the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Crawford’s dominance against the Wild reminded Blackhawks fans — and the rest of the NHL — who the true No. 1 goalie was and still is for this franchise.