CHICAGO – Never before have 20 minutes been so critical.
Never did 20 minutes mean so much to a city that, after 40 minutes Sunday night, was left wondering whether it would see its hockey heroes return to the United Center after this weekend.
The solution was simple.
Own the final 20 minutes of Game 5 and all would seem right in the Blackhawks’ hockey world.
Lose the same 20 minutes and the Hawks’ Stanley Cup defense would likely come to a crash-and-burn end Tuesday night at the Xcel Center – the Hawks’ personal House of Horrors.
Never before – at least this season – did so much ride on 20 minutes.
Twenty minutes would help determine which Hawks team would emerge in what had already been a Jekyll and Hyde performance throughout the series’ first four games.
Would it be the talent-laden team that jumped out to a 2-0 series lead and at times, seemed able to toy with the Wild?
Or, would it be the talent-rich roster that allowed a Minnesota team short on star-power to stick around this long?
The Hawks needed only 4½ minutes and one game-deciding flurry to come up with the answer.
Hawks captain Jonathan Toews first delivered a punishing blow, face-planting Minnesota’s Mikael Granlund against the boards. The hit sparked a furious stream of activity that ended when Toews punched a rebound past Ilya Bryzgalov to provide the deciding goal in a heart-pumping, 2-1 victory that leaves the Hawks one win away from the Western Conference final.
But Toews’ fifth goal of the playoffs did so much more.
It woke up a United Center crowd that had offered a smattering of boos after a forgettable first period before Frank Pellico and his United Center organ mercifully came to the rescue.
It provided insurance for Hawks goalie Corey Crawford, who finished with 27 saves, but who looked anything but sure of himself early on and who again had to be heroic with the Wild skating with an extra attacker for the game’s final 2½ minutes.
It preserved home-ice advantage in a series in which neither team has found a way to win away from home.
Let’s be real.
In all actuality, it saved the Hawks’ season. The Hawks’ performances in Games 3 and 4 provided no assurances that they would be able to muster up enough desperation to win for the first time in this series and force a decisive Game 7. In the two nightmarish showings in Minneapolis last week, the Hawks were taken out of their element, slowed by the Wild who made the Hawks stars seem mortal. Suddenly, the Hawks 2-0 series lead was a distant memory.
Losing the final 20 minutes Sunday night would have placed the Hawks in a precarious position. They would have headed for Minnesota facing elimination against a team that Hawks coach Joel Quenneville deemed much better than the one the Hawks swept a year ago.
As the lights dimmed over the ice Sunday night, lit only by the scoreboard that displayed a “9” representing the required number of victories standing between the Hawks and another Stanley Cup title, this much is certain.
The Hawks now have a second chance to prove what kind of team they can be when they play their style and when they dictate the pace. The Wild had proved what happens when they don’t.
For 40 minutes Sunday night, the Hawks’ ability to define themselves and their season was left in serious question.
Thankfully for them and the 22,016 in attendance, they rallied for a dramatic win and again put the hockey world on notice: This team, when on point, can be world-beaters.
It was a heck of a lot to pack into 20 minutes.
• Jeff Arnold is a sports reporter with the Northwest Herald. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @NWH_JeffArnold.