It wasn’t perfect, but the Chicago Blackhawks got it done, beating the Minnesota Wild on Thursday night to take the first-round series four games to one. Lots of players from the Hawks stepped up their game to a new level in this series, and it was good to watch, as the Wild depth could not skate with their Chicago counterparts, and that ended up being the back-breaker in the series. Here we count down the top three players who took their game above and beyond that in the regular season.
#3: Johnny Oduya
Johnny Oduya may not have been the best defenseman for the Blackhawks during Round One, but he was by far the most improved blue-liner Oduya had a so-so season in 2013, where he wasn’t as noticable as counterparts Brent Seabrook or Duncan Keith, but he did contribute on a smaller scale. Oduya really shone in round one thanks to his solid defensive positioning and great offensive decisions. Oduya is most prominent when he starts the rush from the Hawks zone, and he makes a good first pass that gets the Blackhawks through neutral ice with speed. He has made a few evasion moves that left the Wild forwards behind the play, and these plays generate odd-man rushes in the Blackhawks favour. #27 recorded one goal and one assist in the five-game series, and was a +3. His most memorable play from the series came early; in Game One overtime, he made an incredible over-the-shoulder pass to Viktor Stalberg , who in turn dished to Bryan Bickell for the game-winner. Oduya’s play isn’t phenomenal, but it is a big improvement on what we saw during the regular season, and that is why he earns the Third Star.
#2: Michael Frolik
The Blackhawks’ depth is turning out to be the killer for most of their opponents, and it’s players like Michael Frolik that make the other teams scratch their heads. When the third and fourth lines are playing at this elevated level, opposing coaches cannot figure out what to do, as their depth players cannot compete with the Blackhawks. The second and first lines then get matched up with the Hawks lower-end players, and when the first and second lines come back out, they face exhausted opponents. Michael Frolik has found his playoff stride once again, just as he has in the past two years against the Canucks and Coyotes respectively. He skates into the zone with speed, and makes room thanks to brilliant puck protection that looks as if it’s straight out of Marian Hossa’s textbook. He has the ability to evade the Wild’s best defenseman, and when he is without the puck, he finds the open ice. The latter was a big factor in his two-goal night in Game Two. He added an assist in the series-clinching Game Five to bring his point total to three for the series. Frolik stepped up once again in the post season, and he is a bigger part of the Blackhawks success than one may think. Play similar to this is now an expectation, and his performance in Round Two could have a lasting impact on him.
#1: Corey Crawford
Corey Crawford should be considered an elite goaltender after the first round performance he put on. Give Minnesota credit, as they put alot of pucks at the net in five games, but Crawford was there in the big moments. He seemed to be in the right position at all times, and never gave up a bad rebound or misplayed the puck. With the exception of the goal-line Jason Zucker goal in Game Three, Crawford played with resemblance to his more accomplished peers, (Henrik Lundqvist for example.) In the first frame of Game Five, there was a flurry of action in the Chicago crease, but the puck was kept out of the 4×6 thanks to great positioning and a strong leg from #50. Crawford ranks first among all playoff goalkeepers with a blistering 1.32 GAA, and .950 SV% that puts him in second place. Crawford is the goaltender that can lead the Blackhawks to a lengthy playoff appearance, as long as the five men in front of him keep doing their job. Teamwork is essential in the post-season, and as long as the defense keep clearing pucks and blocking shots, there is not reason for Crawford’s play not to continue.
Bryan Bickell: Great series, with an unexpected 3-goal effort. Only reason he did not make the list is because he didn’t improve as much as the others from the regular season, as he was already playing great there.
The Blackhawks do not know who they will face in Round Two as of yet, but they will after the completion of tonight’s action. Here’s to a Conference Final berth! GO HAWKS!
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