When the puck dropped earlier this evening in Game 4 of the Blackhawks’ qualifying series with the Edmonton Oilers, Chicago found itself with a 2–1 series lead—a position not many expected the team to have when the series began.
Aside from a highly unanticipated Hawk blowout in Game 1, Games 2 and 3 were essentially even.
If Edmonton chalked Game 1 up to no legs and a particularly poor start to the game by goaltender Mike Smith, then Game 4—with the Oilers’ backs to the wall on essentially home ice—would be the true test.
Did most of us underestimate what is left in the tanks of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith? Or is Edmonton just not ready for prime time? Or would the Oilers regain their footing in Game 4, sending the series to a fifth and deciding game?
While Mikko Koskinen split Games 2 and 3 in net for Edmonton, he certainly still appeared to be a better alternative to Smith—and Koskinen would be the starter for Edmonton in Game 4. Corey Crawford, who had not needed to be very good thus far in the series—and to this point was not—remained in net for Chicago.
Edmonton got on the board in the game’s opening minute, when Connor McDavid set up Josh Archibald on a beautiful cross ice pass, catching a disoriented and out-of-position Chicago defense completely off guard. Think a classic Hawk defensive zone Chinese fire drill of the last two seasons—only this time minus Erik Gustafsson. The tally put Edmonton ahead 1–0 just 45 seconds into the contest.
Edmonton dominated the first five minutes, but at 14:44 on one of the Hawks’ first shots, Brandon Saad scooped up a rebound, circled the back of the net and tucked one past a flailing Koskinen to tie the game at 1–1 5:16 into the frame.
After Edmonton defender Darnell Nurse made a weak attempt to advance a puck behind the Oilers’ net, the Blackhawks took possession and kicked it out to Keith at the point. Keith launched a shot that was nicely tipped by Matthew Highmore for his second tally in two games, giving Chicago a 2–1 lead just under eight minutes into the period.
Edmonton began to mount some serious pressure with their defensemen activating and taking some risks in the last 10 minutes of the period. The pace and intensity of the game was noticeably picking up. Nurse then had another miscue, allowing Toews to get behind him at the Edmonton net, forcing Nurse to take him down and earn two minutes at 15:54. The Hawks mounted some nice pressure on the ensuing power play, but Edmonton scrapped and scuffled to kill it off.
Koskinen really seemed to be fighting the puck and flopping around, but somehow managed to hold the Hawks at bay on several quality chances. The period ended, oddly enough, on a Highmore high-sticking penalty, giving the potent Edmonton power play a chance to open the second.
Before Edmonton could get much going on its power play, David Kampf picked off a pass near the top of the Chicago zone and went in on a breakaway that Koskinen stopped. With the penalty expiring, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins slammed a rebound past a fallen Crawford to level the score at 2–2 just over two minutes into the second stanza.
At 2:32, Alex DeBrincat, Stan Bowman’s “disappearing $6 million man,” took an awful five-minute major penalty boarding Edmonton defenseman Ethan Bear from behind. But, before the Oilers could capitalize, Nurse made yet another boneheaded play, drawing an interference call at 4:48. Edmonton killed their portion of the four-on-four, leaving 41 seconds left on DeBrincat’s major. Chicago nonetheless got the kill, but Edmonton kept the pressure on.
Crawford was then tested on a few high-quality chances at even strength and came up big. Koskinen was also tested at times throughout the remainder of the second. Both goalies flopped and flailed quite a bit, but managed to keep the score tied.
The period ended in the midst of another Edmonton power play after Dominik Kubalik took a slashing penalty at 19:49. This period may have featured the most intense hockey of the series.
Crawford stopped several Edmonton chances to open the period and helped the Blackhawks kill off the penalty. He also had a lucky horseshoe in his pads when beaten by Andreas Athanasiou, only to be bailed out by the crossbar.
About a minute later, Drake Caggiula took an ill-advised cross-checking penalty on Athanasiou, putting the Oilers back on the man advantage. Perhaps Crawford’s best save of the game came on a James Neal chance off a sweet passing play about midway through the power play. The Hawks then killed off the remainder.
Edmonton continued to pressure the Hawks at even strength, when for the first time in the series the Hawks appeared to have tired legs. But the Saad-Toews-Kubalik line struck again with breathtaking quickness, with Toews winning a puck on the end board and feeding Kubalik for that lightning one-timer at 8:30, lifting Chicago to a 3–2 lead.
Yet Edmonton kept coming, and Crawford kept responding. The action was fast and furious back and forth until Edmonton tried to pull Koskinen around the two-minute mark—and got hit with an unforgivable too many men call.
Edmonton then dialed up one last onslaught at five-on-five with Koskinen pulled, but it was a day late and a dollar short. Playoff Corey Crawford showed up, and as it was throughout the series, the Hawks’ first line of Kubalik, Toews and Saad was the best on the ice. Game, series, Chicago.
The Blackhawks defied the experts. Here at The Rink, we had the series going four games—to the Oilers. Edmonton’s goaltending and defense, especially without Adam Larsson the last two games, were exposed.