Winning that fourth game: at this time of year, hockey players say it’s the toughest to claim in a playoff series.
The Chicago Blackhawks are on the verge of doing just that on Thursday night, when they host the Minnesota Wild in Game 5 of their Western Conference quarterfinal series.
Ray Emery (lower body) and Dave Bolland (groin), are doubtful for tomorrow night’s game, coach Joel Quenneville said at media availability on Wednesday. For the Wild, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Zenon Konopka and Clayton Stoner will not make the trip. It remains to be seen if Niklas Backstrom, injured since Game 1 but backup after Josh Harding went down early in Game 4, starts Game 5.
The Blackhawks hold a 3-1 series lead, one away from eliminating the Wild and getting a few days’ break while the rest of the first-round matchups play themselves out. And the Blackhawks are making that their focus entering tomorrow night.
“That’s right where our minds are at right now: take advantage of the situation,” Patrick Kane said on Wednesday. “We’ve put ourselves into a good spot; coming back home, it’s an exciting opportunity for us. Tomorrow should be a good challenge. I’m sure they’ll come out with their best game but it’s definitely a good opportunity to close out here at home.”
Now to actually do that. The Blackhawks enter tomorrow with the sizeable lead, with the momentum and with the home ice. The Wild will be as desperate as ever. They had chance after chance to score –- especially on six power plays -- and opportunity to even the series on Tuesday night, even with more goaltending injury drama. But it was squandered, and they’re on their last gasp. The Blackhawks expect them to play accordingly.
“We expect them to play their best game of the series,” said Patrick Sharp. Wild coach Mike Yeo said the same of the Blackhawks heading into Game 4. “(The Wild) have a lot of character. They’re going through some injuries, as a lot of teams do this time of year. But there’s no question they’re going to show up and play hard tomorrow.”
See, the Blackhawks can learn from recent history on that one. They headed to Minnesota with a 2-0 series lead and figured the Wild would come at them with everything it had. The Wild did, but the Blackhawks had little response to it. That, they say, can’t be repeated.
“We’ll learn from Game 3 in this series that, if we have a chance to take control, (do so),” Jonathan Toews said. “We knew exactly what to expect from that team. The first game in their building was going to be good for them. To throw that effort back in their face would’ve been huge for us, to show even their best wasn’t good enough, and we didn’t do that at all. This is our chance to redeem ourselves for the way we played in Game 3.”
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It’s also a chance to find improvement. The Blackhawks weren’t at their stylistic best in Game 4, but a plethora of penalty kills chased that from their repertoire. But they were effective on both sides, from that stellar kill to taking advantage of a few scoring chances. Still, coach Joel Quenneville said, the group can be better.
“Yesterday’s game is the minimal standard for what we’re looking for,” he said. “Whether it’s patience with the puck or simplicity in our game, the energy and compete level has to be only one way and that’s all out. That’s something we want to make sure is in place.”
The Blackhawks have a chance to clinch their first postseason series since hoisting that Cup three seasons ago. It won’t be easy. Claiming those fourth victories never are. But they’ve learned some lessons in this series. Now they need to apply them.
“Everyone’s saying we haven’t played our best game yet,” Toews said. “We have to get as close to that as we can.”