- Craig Custance
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And it was on. The most important power play of the Blackhawks' season was off and running, and when it was finished, Game 5 of this Western Conference semifinal would be transformed.
Chicago beat Detroit 4-1 to keep its season alive -- and cut the Red Wings' series lead to 3-2 -- and the Blackhawks wouldn't have done it without the resuscitation of a power play that, until Saturday night, was providing more momentum for the opposition than for the Blackhawks.
Like in the first period, when they ended a strong opening period with a lifeless power play.
"I don’t think we had a shot," Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook said. "We were [ticked] off after the first one."
The frustration seeped into the Blackhawks dressing room during the first intermission. They had an early one-goal lead on the Red Wings, but it didn’t feel like it. When the Red Wings killed that late holding penalty on Carlo Colaiacovo, a few boos emerged from the rafters of the United Center. It looked like more of the same for a power play that had suddenly become the NHL’s worst in the postseason with the elimination of the New York Rangers earlier in the day. At least for the moment.
While losing three consecutive games to the Red Wings, the Blackhawks power play had gone zero for nine, and the struggles went back further than that. A bit lost in Chicago’s incredible regular-season run was that a power play that can roll out high-powered offensive weapons Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and Keith was pedestrian too often. They finished the regular season at 16.7 percent, good for 19th in the league.
"It’s something we’ve talked about. We’ve moved different units around," Keith told ESPN The Magazine. "It’s not rocket science, power plays. Sometimes, we’ve made it like that over the past season. It’s taking what they give you. Getting shots when you can take it."
That’s exactly how they handled that critical power play that started with 11:39 remaining in the second period. Toews drew a hooking penalty on Drew Miller, important not only because it gave the Blackhawks a man advantage but also because it sent one of Detroit’s best penalty killers into the penalty box.
Toews won that first faceoff clean, a key moment.
"Toewser had a big draw. You start with the puck. He’s so huge," Seabrook said. "I don’t think we even had a breakout when we scored. When you start in your own zone and go back and set up, that’s when things start spinning."
And it started spinning. Jimmy Howard made a save on a Seabroook shot, kicking the puck out near Datsyuk, when the Blackhawks got their first break. In a rare misstep by the Red Wings star, Datsyuk whiffed on a backhanded clearing attempt.
The second break was quite literally a break. Datsyuk broke his stick, leaving the Red Wings with essentially 3½ players trying to kill the penalty. For a split moment, Emmerton thought about giving Datsyuk his own stick but opted not to.
"At that point, I was running around a little bit," Emmerton said. "Just trying to play smart and hope for a good bounce. Or get a whistle."
The Red Wings penalty kill has been so effective against Chicago because of its aggressive play. But a missed clearing attempted and a broken stick wiped out that advantage. The aggressiveness was gone.
Now, the Blackhawks focused on working the puck on the side of the ice where Datsyuk tried to defend without a stick. Seabrook was set up for shots by Keith. He had a slap shot from 54 feet and another from 42.
"He’s at a disadvantage. You can pass through him," Seabrook said of the stickless Datsyuk. "Datsyuk has such a great stick and is such a great player defensively. It’s hard to pass around him. He’s one of those guys who does a great job of taking away lanes."
But not when he’s missing a stick. The Blackhawks attacked with desperation, winning battles for puck retrieval, and, at one point with 45 seconds left on the power play, Hossa made a great play at the blue line to keep in a clearing attempt from Ericsson.
By the time Andrew Shaw deflected a shot from Keith past Howard for what turned out to be the game-winning goal, the Wings PK was gassed and the Blackhawks power play struggles were over.
There’s no such thing as momentum from one NHL playoff game to the next, but the confidence gained in that power play and Toews getting another power-play goal on his surgical shot later in the second, can be carried over. It has to be if the Blackhawks are going to continue their climb past Detroit.
"Tonight was the way we know we can play and the way we can skate," Keith said. "It was nice to see the power play get going. That was a big boost to our team tonight."
And with the success, the Blackhawks pulled out of the basement. Their power play improved to 17.9 percent in the postseason, no longer the worst of any team still playing. At 15.9 percent, that honor now belongs to Detroit.
CHICAGO -- It started with a clean win of the draw. Jonathan Toews not only beat Pavel Datsyuk on the faceoff, he ripped the puck back to Duncan Keith at the point of the Blackhawks power play.