The Washington Capitals entered the United Center on Sunday clinging to the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and needing a win to hold their spot. In their way, stood the Chicago Blackhawks, fresh off of back-to-back impressive wins over division leaders (St. Louis and Dallas) and also fighting to solidify their spot in the playoff picture, sitting at sixth in the Western Conference.
The 'Hawks started quickly and got on the scoreboard first when Andrew Shaw deflected a Duncan Keith shot with his shin to take the 1-0 lead at 3:35 in the first period. It was three minutes and 25 seconds later than their first strike in Dallas on Friday, but scoring first has proven to be a huge advantage for them; Chicago would never look back en route to a 5-2 victory. Viktor Stalberg, Patrick Kane and Brian Bickell added tallies for the Hawks and Shaw scored another.
Fans have to be happy to see production coming from more than the top two forward lines. They've needed a spark since Jonathan Toews has missed 13 straight games while dealing with a concussion. He resumed skating but appears to have suffered a setback before being cleared for contact. The 'Hawks will have to continue to find ways to score until he returns.
The Blackhawks' defense played very well throughout, but especially in the first period. They held the Caps without a shot on goal until past the 10-minute mark in the first period and to just 18 all game. Corey Crawford notched his third straight victory after being benched in favor of Ray Emery for the previous five games. The 'Hawks are desperately looking for one of their goaltenders to step up and be the guy that they can ride through a deep playoff run. Emery played well while Crawford was benched before getting sick, which then reopened the door for Crawford.
If they're lucky, both goaltenders will be playing their best hockey as the playoffs near. We've seen in recent years that it's not the best team that wins it all, but the team that enters the playoffs on a hot streak.
After dominating the Capitals Sunday night, the Blackhawks are now 12-3-2 against the Eastern Conference this year and are just four points behind both Nashville and Detroit for that fourth seed in the West. They will play Nashville twice and Detroit once more as the season winds down and have a chance to move up the standings. If they continue to play well, look for Chicago to make some noise in the season's final weeks.
Steve Peters is a staff writer for NHLfanchat.com. Follow on twitter: @stevepeters_