Now, I could simply just say the following and be done: Because it’s Chicago. However, that would just be cruel. Yes, Minnesota is in a five-way tie with San Jose, St. Louis, Dallas and Detroit for 4th place in the Western Conference—not bad company to be in, by the way—but the 9th-14th places in the West are within four points of joining that group, as well. Even last place Columbus is only eight points out of 4th place. A loss here or there for Minnesota could set them back farther than they can afford.
Minnesota Wild fans don’t need to worry about the defense—Suter, Brodin, Spurgeon and Gilbert are real solid blue liners and the tandem of Backstrom and Kuemper has been great for Minnesota. However, the team’s exceptional defense will only go so far if the team doesn’t get the goal-scoring support that it needs. Last night’s win against the Oilers was just the fourth 4-goal output by an offensively-struggling Wild team this season. They’re going to need at least that to outscore the Hawks tomorrow in Chicago.
Speaking of the Hawks, they just won’t die, will they? Yesterday, it looked like the Red Wings were about to edge Chicago 1-0 in regulation at the “Joe”. However, Detroit defenseman Jonathan Ericsson flipped the puck over the glass, which led to a late game power play chance for the Blackhawks. The smartest of hockey fans knew, then and there, that the game was over for the Red Wings. Sure enough, 2007 1st overall pick Patrick Kane camped in front of the net, just to the left of Wings goalie Jimmy Howard, and took a quick feed from Viktor Stalberg, snapping it high short-side over the shoulder of Howard to tie it up with barely two minutes left in the game. A penalty to another Wings blue liner, Niklas Kronwall, meant that Chicago would be on the power play for the rest of regulation and a little bit into overtime—meaning the Hawks’ undefeated-in-regulation streak continued on. Chicago would eventually win in overtime, thanks in no small part to a nifty move by Kane in the skills competition.
As impressive as that is, Minnesota fans have seen him do better.
As a Minnesota Wild fan and writer, I had never cheered so hard for Detroit in my life than I did yesterday. However, former Wild fan favorite, and current Fox Sports North analyst, Wes Walz brought up an interesting point after the Wild’s win last night—Minnesota has a chance to not only be the team that gave the Hawks their first overtime/shootout loss of the season this year, but also potentially be the team to give them their first regulation loss. That makes the excitement surrounding tomorrow night’s game in Chicago that much more intense.
Why couldn’t they beat Chicago tomorrow? Well, it’s simple—this season, Minnesota has had trouble scoring goals. The first line will be dominant, but the secondary scoring is absent and vice versa. When you’re playing against guys like Marian Hossa, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and Kane, you need to be able to not only shut them down defensively—which won’t necessarily be Minnesota’s problem tomorrow—you need to be able to outscore them, as well. Then they have secondary scorers like Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw that can chip in a few, too.
Also, while Corey Crawford and Ray Emery aren’t Tim Thomas, Henrik Lundqvist or Martin Brodeur, they’re still exceptional goaltending talents in their own right, and aren’t to be underestimated. Minnesota’s shooters need to give them their respect, but not too much. Look at the way Minnesota peppered Devan Dubnyk last night, and dominated the Oilers in nearly every way. That’s the way Minnesota is going to have to play to beat the Hawks but, with the way Chicago has been playing, I’m not so sure the Wild can do that for a full 60 minutes against this extremely lethal Blackhawks squad.
Minnesota will absolutely need to stay out of the penalty box—it’s downright imperative. No hooking, no tripping, no crosschecking, no dirty hits, no flipping the puck over the glass out of play and no embellishing while drawing a penalty. As good as the Wild penalty kill is, Chicago’s power play is still better by far. One power play goal against could be the difference between winning and losing.
In this lockout-shortened season, with just 27 more games to go, Minnesota can’t afford to string one or two losses together. In those 27 games, every game is going to be tough for Minnesota, as they battle for playoff positioning with the best in the West in Vancouver, Anaheim, Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas, LA, Phoenix, San Jose and Detroit. There are no easy games, and Minnesota Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo knows it. Last night may have been the most complete game by Minnesota this season; however, tomorrow night may be the most important. Let’s hope the Wild are up to the challenge. Be sure to read my article tomorrow giving the reasons why Minnesota could beat the Blackhawks—I’m not entirely pessimistic.