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Blackhawks Wed May 27 2009

Game 5 postmortem

The Blackhawks season ended tonight in a 2-1 OT loss to the Detroit Red Wings in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals. Though many people didn't expect the Hawks to even make the playoffs, let alone reach the conference finals, the young and inexperienced Hawks challenged the poised and grizzled vets of Detroit throughout the series (the disaster that was Game 4 being the lone exception), and got a valuable lesson in playoff hockey to take with them into the offseason.

While a detailed perspective on this unprecedented year for the Blackhawks will be necessary in the days to come, a few thoughts on tonight's final tilt.

First and foremost, after showing severe signs of rust in Game 4 replacing the injured Nicolai Khabibulin, goaltender Cristobal Huet was magnifique tonight. His 44 saves kept the Hawks in the game, especially in a first period that saw Detroit put 21 shots on net as they took the attack to Chicago. And his save on Johan Franzen in the closing seconds of the third was spectacular, as he kicked up a leg while lying on his stomach to deflect away a backhanded rebound. While Chicago played a strong game, they would not have had a chance to win without Huet's heroics, and neither Wing goal could remotely be blamed on him.

Following Game 4's disaster, Chicago had to refocus and come out with a strong, yet disciplined effort in Game 5. Although the Hawks did take 2 penalties in a first period that saw Detroit again starting to dominate and control possession, the effort was there. Even though the Wings notched 21-9 shot advantage in the first, the Blackhawks blocked 7 shots and dished out 17 of their 36 hits in the game, showing that while the team may have been on their heels, they were laying it all on the line. After the frenetic first, things became increasingly tight with both goalies making key saves, and it became clear the game was going to come down to the wire.

After Dan Clearly's tip-in goal midway through the 3rd gave Detroit a 1-0 lead, Patrick Kane emerged from his series long slumber with a beautiful backhander to tie the game at 1 with a little more than 7 minutes left. Kane had been frustrated by future Hall-of-Famer Nicklas Lidstrom all series long, but the Wing captain was out the past two games, and Kane took advantage, racing past Brett Lebda and lifed a tight shot over goalie Chris Osgood's shoulder. It was exactly the type of goal Kane's capable of when he gets room to operate, and it couldn't have come at a better time for Chicago.

The Hawks managed 31 shots on Osgood with leading scorer Martin Havlat missing the game following some hard hits in the previous two, and the team had a lot of quality scoring chances despite being shorthanded and coach Joel Quenneville shuffling the lines to get something going. Havlat and Khabibulin being out of action changed the complexity of the game and put the Hawks in a bind, though granted, Detroit was missing key players as well in Pavel Datsyuk, Lidstrom and Jonathon Ericcson. Still, the offensive chances were there and one lucky bounce past Osgood could have brought the series back to Chicago for Game 6.

Even though Chicago's hopes ended in 5 games, the series was tight throughout, Game 4 notwithstanding. 3 games went to overtime, and Game 1 was close until the Wings took advantage of key mistakes in the 3rd period. The difference throughout the series was Detroit's experience in the high-pressure playoff cooker. That's not to say that Chicago's youth was a major liability, but almost every Detroit goal was facilitated by controlling the puck and putting continued pressure on net. The series-clinching goal in overtime is a clear demonstration of what makes the Wings dangerous, as they pinned the Blackhawks in their own zone. As Chicago couldn't clear and Detroit kept getting shots off, a fortunate bounce and rebound lead to a wide-open net for Detrot's Darren Helm.

The Wings' poise and systemic working of the puck leads to opportunities a lot of other teams don't have the patience to get, and the depth of their four lines makes every combination tough to defend, and the series provided a clear snapshot of where the Hawks are as a team, and where they need to get to. As the saying goes, to be the best, you have to beat the best, and Detroit showed why they're the defending Stanley Cup Champions. The Blackhawks had a great year, and a good series, and now know where the measuring stick stands for next year.

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