Thursday's best: Blackhawks answer doubters with sweep; Canadiens stay alive
Best game: Chicago 4, Minnesota 3. This game had so much: A gruesome injury to Chicago defenseman Michal Rozsival, another Patrick Kane goal, Jonathan Toews hitting the post on an empty-net attempt that would have iced the game, an empty-net goal by Marian Hossa that made it 4-1 earlier and two Minnesota goals in a 51-second span that drew the Wild within 4-3 late and made for one hell of a frenetic finish. Minnesota was the best team in the NHL from mid-January on. The Wild had lost to Chicago in the two previous postseasons, but they looked oh-so poised to slay the white whale. So many doubts had crept in about Chicago's ability to make one more Cup run before another cap-induced offseason purge. The blue line was thin (and got thinner with Rozsival's injury), the balanced scoring had vanished and goalie Corey Crawford had an abysmal start to the playoffs. Somehow, battle-tested Chicago got its act together and escaped from the NHL's best division to face the winner of the Anaheim-Calgary series in the Western Conference finals. It's the third straight appearance in that round for Chicago and fifth in the past seven seasons. If not for a fluky OT goal in Game 7 against Los Angeles last season, the Hawks might be eyeing a three-peat. Who wants to bet against this cast of stars now?
#Blackhawks dressing room looked and sounded like a mid-January win. Or loss. A very been-there, done-that feel.— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) May 8, 2015
Best stat: Patrick Kane, F, Chicago. There have been four players in the Blackhawks' history to score at least one goal in the first four games of a series. Bobby Hull did it in 1965 vs. Detroit; Steve Larmer did it in 1989 vs. St. Louis; Dustin Byfuglien did it in 2010 against San Jose, and now Kane has joined the cast after netting a goal late in the third period to help Chicago complete a surprising sweep of the Wild.
Best stat: Erik Haula, F, Minnesota. Haula has five career playoff goals, including one on Thursday. Four have come against Chicago.
Best at being worst: Andrei Vasilevskiy, G, Tampa. Backup goalies were all the rage in the first round, with Chicago's Scott Darling steadying his team enough to push it past Nashville after Corey Crawford faltered. Tampa is hardly in danger after Ben Bishop allowed three quick goals and was pulled Thursday in Game 4 against Montreal, but Vasilevskiy didn't give his team the emotional boost or momentum shift coach Jon Cooper hoped for when he made the switch. Vasilevskiy allowed three goals on 26 shots, but they almost all came early as the Bolts took it on the chin 6-2.
Best visual: Michal Rozsival's ankle wasn't supposed to do that. Everything was looking great for the Blackhawks. Andrew Shaw had just scored to put Chicago up 2-0. It looked like the Blackhawks would sweep the Wild and get some rest for their paper-thin blue line before the Western Conference finals. Then Rozsival suffered this frightening ankle injury, and the Hawks are facing the very real possibility of having to choose between David Rundblad, Kyle Cumiskey and Michael Paliotta to fill out their six-man defensive corps. The playoffs: a war of attrition.
Best quote, via NHL.com: "This group won three out of four elimination games in the playoffs last year, so we knew what to expect, and we played with that desperation we needed to have." — Montreal forward Max Pacioretty on staying alive.
Best venting of frustration: Montreal. Before Game 4, Canadiens coach Michel Therrien said he couldn't ask for anything more from his team than it had given in a Game 3 loss with 1.1 seconds left in regulation. Well, goals would help, and the Habs had a lot of those in Game 4. Montreal scored three goals on its first 14 shots to chase Tampa goalie Ben Bishop, who had been nearly invincible against this team all season. And Montreal didn't stop there. The Canadiens scored two quick goals on backup Andrei Vasilevskiy to open a 5-0 lead and ensure a Game 5 back at Bell Centre. Their six total goals were two more than they had scored in the three previous games of this series combined.
Best balance: Montreal. Thirteen of the Canadiens' 18 skaters recorded at least a point against Tampa on Thursday, with Max Pacioretty (goal, two assists) leading the way.
Best thing to look forward to Friday: Washington Capitals at New York Rangers, Game 5. Washington is trying to advance to the conference finals for the first time in 17 years. New York is trying to figure out where its offense went, with just five goals in four games of this series. The Rangers rallied from a 3-1 deficit last season to beat Pittsburgh, but the Caps have a defensive stranglehold on the Rangers that the Pens never managed last season.