ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — For the fifth time in the last seven seasons, the Chicago Blackhawks have reached the Western Conference finals.
They’re eight wins away from topping that feat with a third Stanley Cup.
Stellar saves by Corey Crawford, another timely goal by Patrick Kane and a composed finish despite a frenzied attempt by Minnesota to send Game 4 into overtime all helped the Blackhawks complete a sweep of the Wild in their second-round playoff series with a 4-3 victory on Thursday night.
“It was probably a little too close for comfort, but they are a team that is not going to give up,” said Kane, adding: “It doesn’t matter how you get it.”
The Wild never led in the series, but they rallied after falling behind 4-1 on Marian Hossa’s short-handed, empty-net goal with 3:07 left. Devan Dubnyk, who made 21 saves to cap a remarkable run for the Wild since arriving in a season-saving mid-January trade, was pulled for most of the last four minutes.
Jason Pominville and Nino Niederreiter scored with 2:18 and 1:27 remaining to give the Wild one last chance, but the final few whacks were either wide or turned aside by Crawford. The Blackhawks improved to 30-0, including 5-0 this postseason, when leading after two periods.
“The biggest thing is that we just won two big ones, two close ones, on the road,” captain Jonathan Toews said. “I think it shows that we’re not satisfied.”
The Blackhawks will face either the Anaheim Ducks or Calgary Flames in the conference finals. The Ducks lead that series 2-1, with the next game Friday night.
Brent Seabrook and Andrew Shaw also scored for the Blackhawks, who were down to five defensemen after a serious injury to veteran Michal Roszival. Toews and Bryan Bickell had two assists apiece, and Chicago eliminated Minnesota from the playoffs for the third straight year, winning 12 of the 15 games.
“We’ve got to find a way to get to that next level,” Pominville said. “I don’t think we’re that far off. Just a bounce here, a bounce there, would’ve probably helped. Being able to solve their goalie is obviously something that we weren’t able to do.”
Crawford stopped 124 of 131 shots in the four games for a robust .947 save percentage. Kane had five goals. Defenseman Duncan Keith had a plus-seven rating. The Blackhawks, who lost in overtime in the seventh game of the series last year against the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, have their game in gear.
“The core group that’s been here is extremely proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish,” left wing Patrick Sharp said. “This team has come together at the right time. We’re playing great hockey.”
The Blackhawks have scored 12 times in the first period in 10 games this postseason. They’re 5-1 when scoring first.
Their defense in the neutral zone has been as stingy as ever, able to force a turnover and spring their speedy attackers on the rush at just the right moments, and getting that first goal has given them more reason to hang back in protection of the lead and wait for mistakes they can pounce on.
The Blackhawks showed their deft finishing touch throughout the series, making so many of their prime opportunities count. The Wild simply didn’t, though they couldn’t help but shake their heads about some of the bad bounces against them.
Seabrook gave the Blackhawks a 1-0 lead with his shot off Wild defenseman Marco Scandella’s shin and into the upper corner of the net.
“It’s really frustrating because it just didn’t feel like a sweep,” Wild left wing Thomas Vanek said. “That’s a good team over there. They know how to win. Sometimes it’s just a matter of bounces.”
Toews took the game’s first penalty, hooking early in the second period, and the Wild just missed several chances to score on the power play. Defenseman Matt Dumba and center Mikael Granlund took the place of the struggling Pominville and Vanek on the first unit.
Soon after Toews left the box, he picked up the puck and threaded a perfect pass to a streaking Marcus Kruger, who drew a hooking call on Niederreiter. The Blackhawks scored on their power play when Shaw knocked a loose puck between Dubnyk’s pads.
Vanek had a breakaway when Rozsival lost his balance and fell backward while badly injuring his left leg, but Crawford brushed Vanek’s shot aside with his blocker. Rozsival was helped off the ice, his left leg hanging limp without any weight on it.
“Doesn’t look good,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said.
Erik Haula scored in the second period to pull the Wild within 2-1, his speed and energy on the fourth line providing a bright spot for the Wild. That was the first goal by a Wild forward in a stretch of 177 minutes and 11 seconds since the middle of the second period of Game 1. Dumba scored in Game 2, the only other goal during that stretch as Crawford gained more and more confidence by the shot.
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