They were grinding through all 60 minutes. Actually, make that a grind through 65-plus minutes. Nothing was coming easy. Nothing was fancy. Everything was work.
It was simple, gritty, workman-like hockey. And with several key players out of the lineup, it’s the type of hockey the Blackhawks are going to have to play, and win at, to finish the regular season.
Bryan Bickell scored in his first game back from an upper-body injury, and Marian Hossa scored the shootout winner as the Blackhawks beat the Minnesota Wild, 3-2, Thursday night at the United Center. It was a much-needed victory for the Blackhawks, who snapped a three-game winless streak. They gained no ground on the Colorado Avalanche, however, who came back to beat the New York Rangers in a shootout and maintain their three-point lead with a game in hand.
Ben Smith scored his 11th goal of the season. Corey Crawford, who let in a bad one with fewer than two minutes remaining in the third, stopped all three Minnesota shootout attempts. He stopped 25 of 27 in regulation and overtime.
The Blackhawks were already without Jonathan Toews (left arm) and Patrick Kane (left knee), who will miss the rest of the regular season with their respective injuries. Then defenseman Johnny Oduya was a late scratch. Coach Joel Quenneville said Oduya “didn’t feel right coming out of warmups,” and Oduya probably won’t play Friday against the Columbus Blue Jackets, either. David Rundblad, who replaced Oduya in the lineup, played just under 10 minutes and finished with five hits and three blocked shots.
With several top players missing, the Blackhawks couldn’t afford to get too fancy. It was all about playing simple, all about working through the game and taking advantage of any breaks or opportunities they got along the way.
“Tonight was a big win,” said Duncan Keith. “We’ve got a lot of good players out of the lineup, but a lot of different guys stepped up. Rundblad played some key minutes, and (Bryan Bickell) comes back and scores a big goal. That’s what we’re going to need going forward.”
The Blackhawks were OK at the start, though the player absences were noticeable. They had just six shots on goal in the first period, and the Wild took the lead, off Charlie Coyle’s redirected shot. The second period, however, the Blackhawks started shooting more and capitalized. Ilya Bryzgalov stopped Nick Leddy and Brandon Saad’s shots, but Smith lifted his shot over a sprawled Bryzgalov to tie it 1-1.
“We thought we played an OK game in the first — we got away from the game plan — but we moved on in the second,” Bickell said. “For us, we just need to simplify with the guys out of our lineup right now. We don’t need to make the cute plays; we just need to make the smart plays.”
Bickell got his 11th of the season off his own rebound, after Jeremy Morin pounced on a Wild turnover, 2:45 into the third. The Blackhawks held that lead until Erik Haula’s shot fluttered over Crawford’s glove to tie it, 2-2, with 1:54 remaining in regulation.
“I was pretty frustrated,” said Crawford, who looked it just after that goal eluded him. “You don’t want to give up a goal when you’re up 2-1. I didn’t catch it right away, but from that distance, it was a tough one to let (in) and maybe a little extra incentive to stop all three in the shootout.”
Indeed, Crawford did lock things down in the shootout, stopping all three of Minnesota’s attempts while Hossa scored the lone Blackhawks one, a shot that dribbled through Bryzgalov. While that late-regulation goal could’ve been demoralizing for a struggling team, the Blackhawks said they didn’t sweat it.
“We know what to do,” Brandon Saad said. “It’s definitely tough; it takes the air out of the tires. But we stayed focused, and Crow made huge saves in overtime and the shootout. He stepped up to the plate.”
Thursday night’s victory wasn’t pretty by any means. It didn’t have to be. The suddenly injury-depleted Blackhawks aren’t going for style points. With five games remaining and home-ice advantage in the first round still possible, they’re going for any points.
“We’re making sure that simplicity is at a priority level. It’s something we may say a little more than we normally do,” Quenneville said. “We encourage these guys to play well offensively but ... trying to manufacture leads to trouble sometimes. Safely is probably the right way to approach it.”