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MUSICK: Blackhawks avoid letting things get vicious

Published: Saturday, May 4, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Saturday, May 4, 2013 5:50 p.m. CDT
Caption
(Nam Y. Huh)
Minnesota Wild's Devin Setoguchi, left, battles for the puck with Chicago Blackhawks' Michal Handzus during the first period of Game 2 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup first-round playoff series in Chicago, Friday, May 3, 2013. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

CHICAGO – Duncan Keith looked at me as if I had a couple of screws loose.

Keith might have been on to something, but that was not the point.

Why, I wondered, did so many violent hits emerge in the Stanley Cup playoffs? And how could the Blackhawks avoid that sort of nastiness while playing hard-nosed hockey at the same time?

“Hockey is a physical game,” Keith said. “You have to be able to hit and take hits.”

I hustled out of there before Keith could check me into a garbage can.

The Blackhawks delivered and received a few hits during a 5-2 win against the Minnesota Wild, which gave them a 2-0 series lead in the Western Conference quarterfinals. A sellout crowd of 22,012 partied late into the night as the Hawks’ magic number for a championship dropped to 14.

Some Hawks fans might feel compelled to fret, but it was a great effort by the Hawks.

Third-line forward Michael Frolik scored the first two goals after notching all of three goals during the regular season. Patrick Sharp added two more to seal the win, and Corey Crawford was occasionally spectacular in net with 26 stops on 28 shots.

Equally important, the Hawks and Wild stayed away from nonsense playoff violence.

The first-round series has included several crunching hits, and more will be on the way as the Wild become desperate to salvage their season. But the medical stretcher in the west tunnel of the United Center has remained unused, and no ambulance has had to turn out on to Damen Avenue.

That wasn’t the case last season when Phoenix Coyotes forward Raffi Torres knocked Marian Hossa unconscious with a horrifying hit in which he leaped off of his skates to drill the Hawks’ forward.

Hossa required all summer to recover, while Torres ended up serving a 21-game suspension.

It wasn’t the case this week, either, when Ottawa Senators defenseman Eric Gryba lowered his right shoulder into the side of Lars Eller’s head. Eller, a highly skilled forward for the Montreal Canadiens, was knocked out by the hit and fell face-first to the ice, staining it with blood.

Eller was wheeled off of the ice on a stretcher, and doctors quickly determined that he had sustained a concussion and facial fractures. He was released from the hospital Friday, the same day in which the NHL suspended Gryba two games for an illegal hit to the head.

The postseason, Sharp said, was ripe for such hits. For what it’s worth, Sharp thought Gryba’s hit was clean because he kept his shoulder in and Eller had the puck.

“You don’t often see that in the regular season,” Sharp said. “In the playoffs, guys are moving quicker, looking to hit like that. …

“As far as bringing that to our series, you definitely want to stay away from it. Those plays can be big throughout the course of a game or the series.”

That’s exactly what the Hawks want to avoid.

Anyone who has watched hockey for more than a two-minute minor should be able to tell that the No. 1 seed Hawks possess far more talent than the No. 8 seed Wild. Because less talented teams cannot dictate the pace of the game with their skill, they often rely on physical play instead.

Wild coach Mike Yeo said he wanted his team to be more physical against the Hawks.

“That said,” Yeo said, “we have to make sure we’re doing it the right way.”

It was refreshing to hear a coach attach a common-sense clause to his comments. But whether the Hawks and Wild continue to play “the right way” as the series continues is another question.

At some point, every series seems to turn nasty.

Someone could be drilled into the boards on a dangerous hit from behind. Someone could be leveled at center ice. Someone could catch a sharp stick (or a hard fist) to the face.

The championship-minded Hawks hope that someone is not named Toews, Kane or Hossa.

“You can’t be surprised by it,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “When we watch some of the other games, there are a lot of physical games. You’re going into the games knowing you’ve got to be ready for everything and anything.

“Let’s be ready to handle it.”

Let’s hope the stretcher stays exactly where it is.

• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at tmusick@shawmedia.com and on Twitter @tcmusick.

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