If tonight’s Minnesota Wild vs Chicago Blackhawks playoff game was any kind of an indicator, this is going to be one heck of a 1st round series in the quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup. The Wild fell 2-1 in overtime to the Blackhawks on a Bryan Bickell goal 16:35 into the extra session at the United Center. For only the fifth time this season the Wild lost when scoring the first goal of the game. Perhaps the biggest story of the game for Minnesota was the loss of starting goal tender Nicklas Backstrom. The Wild net minder made an awkward save in pregame warm ups went to his knees and had to be assisted to the Wild locker room. Enter Josh Harding, Minnesota’s back up goal tender, who has played just over two periods since February 7th and his first start since January 30th. He looked rusty to say the least in his last appearance during an ugly game against the Edmonton Oilers on April 26th. A loss that cost the Wild 7th seed in the Western Conference. Harding shook off that rust, to say the least, this evening. He was magnificent in goal tonight yielding just two goals in 76:35 of play making 35 saves on 37 shots. Unfortunately his teammates could only muster a single goal to help him toward victory. Wild head coach Mike Yeo said he found out Backstrom was out lust before game time saying, “I was ready to post the lineup and finding out he’s not suited to go was a bit of a curve ball to say the least.” Yeo felt the team responded well to the goalie change saying the team made a, “Extra concerted effort on playing our game and playing it well, we should be confident in the structure of our game.” Post game Yeo had no update on Backstrom’s condition except to say it was a lower body injury. So that limits it to anything from the shoulders down. All the Wild faithful can hope for is it’s not serious and he can heal over the next 2+ days before Fridays game two in the United Center. One interesting not is that the Wild are flying back to St. Paul tonight and will practice at home the next two days before returning to Chicago on Thursday afternoon. That’s one benefit of having an opponent close geographically.
The Minnesota goal, unfortunately that is singular, came on a beauty of a play by Cal Clutterbuck. Defenseman Clayton Stoner found Clutterbuck with a nice pass that sent the winger flying in on the left side. Clutterbuck snapped off a hard shot that ricoched off Blackhawk goalie Corey Crawford‘s right shoulder and in for the goal. Suddenly the Wild led at the 4:48 mark and it was rather quiet in the United Center. At the end of the 1st period the Wild led 1 to zip and you could hear jaws dropping and hitting the floor around the NHL. The Wild defense held the high octane Chicago offense to just 6 shots for the period. An aggressive forecheck by Minnesota and excellent positional play allowed the Wild to control play for much of the opening period. The Wild would not score for the next 71:47 of the game however.
The Blackhawks would tie the game with a power play goal just 2:06 into the second stanza. With Zach Parise in the penalty box for goal tender interference the Chicago power play went to work. Marian Hossa, the ageless one, took a feed from Patrick Kane and beat Harding with a wrister five-hole for the Blackhawks only regulation goal of the night. The Wild would only take 3 minor penalties all game, one in the 1st period, 1 in the 2nd and 1 in overtime. Chicago would take 4 minors leading to 6:55 of power play time for Minnesota, but the Wild power play would come up empty on a night when a goal was needed most.
The Minnesota offense had a plethora of good scoring chances throughout the game but just couldn’t cash in on more than one of them. The top line of Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Charlie Coyle played an excellent game from a defensive point of view but they were conspicuously absent on the score sheet. Not to dismiss their defensive efforts but this 21 million dollar top line isn’t here for that. They’re here to put the biscuit in the basket on a consistent basis. They will have to produce or this will be a short series remembered for “They battled hard!” but couldn’t score when they needed it most. The #1 line accumulated just 5 shots on goal for the game with Parise not registering a shot until more than 6 minutes had elapsed in the 2nd period. Moving down the depth chart, the line of Matt Cullen, Devin Setoguchi and Jason Zucker totaled 6 shots. The third line consisting of Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Cal Clutterbuck and Kyle Brodziak put 7 shots on Crawford. The energy line with Zenon Konopka, Mike Rupp and Corey Mitchell had 6 on net as the defense chipped in with 3 shots. While that is a balanced attack, I expect more out of the #1 line, especially when Koivu and Parise saw significant time on the power play totaling 4:08 apiece. The bottom line is the top line must score if the Wild are to have any chance at all of winning this series. One of the Wild’s best tonight was rookie Jason Zucker who almost won the game with a shot that caromed off the cross bar some 7 minutes into overtime. Someone forgot to tell Zucker and fellow rookie Charlie Coyle they were supposed to be star struck and overwhelmed in their first Stanley Cup Playoff game as they both played extremely well. Head Coach Mike Yeo when asked about Zucker’s play and near goal in game 1 said, “I thought he played a really good game. He had a great look in overtime. It’s a game of inches. (I) certainly wish that one went in.” As a whole the Wild offense played well and generated a lot of good scoring opportunities. They will have to convert on some of those opportunities if they hope to take a game in Chicago before the series moves to Saint Paul for games 3 and 4 this coming Sunday and Tuesday. There’s no points for ties or “played the game the right way” at this juncture of the season. One goal a game won’t get the job done against a Chicago team that averaged 3.10 goals a game during the regular season against all teams and 2.67 in three games against the Wild. While Wild Head Coach Yeo praised his squads effort, he tempered his enthusiasm saying, “I don’t want to paint too positive a picture of it here. We did some good things, our guys battled hard but we didn’t win the game. We have to find a way to come back and be a little bit better.”
The defense performed very well against the high octane Blackhawks offense. Ryan Suter had an incredible time on ice total of 41:08 for the night establishing a new Minnesota Wild record for any player in a Wild sweater. Incredibly that is not his personal record, that is 42:01 in a playoff game against the Vancouver Canucks on April 30, 2011 while he was with the Nashville Predators. It will be an injustice if he doesn’t win the Norris Trophy, but I digress. Suter’s defensive partner rookie sensation Jonas Brodin skated 34:20, registering 1 shot and 5 hits. In his case it will also be am injustice if he doesn’t win the Calder Trophy. Next on the defense list is the pair of Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella. Spurgeon was channeling his inner Greg Zanon as he spent a fair part of the game throwing himself in front of Blackhawk shots. He blocked a total of 7 on the night and contributed two of his own to the Wild’s shot total while piling up 26:15 in ice time. Spurgeon’s partner tonight was the recently recalled Marco Scandella, who got the start while defenseman Brett Clark, Justin Falk and Nate Prosser were healthy scratches. At 6’3″ and 210 lbs., Scandella added some size and muscle to Minnesota’s defensive lineup. Tonight was just his 7th game of the season for the Wild.
Chicago Blackhawks Head Coach Joel Quenville in his post game comments praised the Wild’s defense in an offhand fashion saying, “We might have been a little to much on the outside. we’ve got to put more pucks and traffic at the net. We were getting zone time, but getting nothing out of it. It’s tough to penetrate that slot (against Minnesota) and pretty goals might be tough to come by.” He’s right about one thing, goals will be hard to come by for both teams in this series. When the Wild get an opportunity they need to turn it into a goal. Minnesota lost the special teams battle in Game 1. They were 0 for 4 with the man advantage and surrendered a power play goal to Chicago. The Wild will have to turn those numbers around as this series continues. They cannot afford to pass up shots looking for a better shot or trying to complete a play. Take the shot when you see it guys, the Blackhawks won’t give you that many good opportunities to score. Now the Wild have two full days to practice before they return to Chicago for game 2. Hopefully by then Coach Yeo will have a tough decision to make as to which healthy goal tender to start. Jason Pominville will also have two more days to rest his “upper body” injury and be able to go on Friday. His offensive contributions were definitely missed tonight. GonePuckWild.com will keep you updated with all the Wild news and information you need as the quest for the Stanley Cup continues. I’ll be back with the preview of game two and until then this is Scott Drain still yelling, “LET’S GO WILD, BEAT THE ‘HAWKS!”