After a couple of days off to rest and practice the Minnesota Wild are ready for Game 2 of their Stanley Cup Playoff series with the Chicago Blackhawks. The Wild trail the Backhawks 1-0 in the best of 7 series after a valiant but losing effort Tuesday. The story of the game was goal tender Josh Harding. Scheduled starter Niklas Backstrom was injured in warmups and that’s when Minnesota Captain Mikko Koivu skated over to Harding and told him to get in net. Harding started for the first time since January 30th and played for the first time since his less than stellar relief appearance against Edmonton April 26th. Hards was nearly unbeatable allowing Chicago’s high powered offense just a single goal in regulation. It took 16+ minutes of overtime for the Blackhawks to again find the back of the net. If his team could have given him more goal support beyond Clutterbuck’s beauty 4:48 into the opening period, if Jason Zucker‘s shot early in OT is 1 inch lower, if Zach Parise doesn’t take a goal tender interference call early in the sceond, if, if, if. What the Wild did show, is that they can play right up there with the Blackhawks. In four total games between the clubs this season Chicago has outscored Minnesota by just 3 goals 10-7. Game two will see more tight checking, great goal tending, and back and forth action. The Wild will need to once again come out flying early, take control of the game and score the first goal of the night. In addition Minnesota MUST score more than 1 goal. Their defense can play lights out against the Blackhawks, kill every penalty and keep the play 200 feet away from Harding, but without some goal support the result will be the same.
At this point is does appear that Josh Harding will get the start in net for game 2. Darcy Kuemper has been recalled from Houston as the backup. Niklas Backstrom is listed as day-to-day with a lower body injury along with defenseman Clayton Stoner. Stoner was injured in Tuesday’s game, playing only 8+ minutes before leaving the ice for good. In addition Jason Pominville is still listed as day-to-day with an upper body injury. It’s not a very well kept secret that the injury is between his ears and caused by an illegal elbow to the head courtesy of the LA Kings Dustin Brown. Stoner and Backstrom traveled with the team to Chicago Thursday afternoon while Pominville remained in St. Paul. Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo will make any lineup change announcements Friday afternoon. The Blackhawks will be without the services of center Dave Bolland and net minder Ray Emery for the second playoff game in a row. That means Corey Crawford will be starting the second straight game in goal against the Wild. For any NHL player to be out this time of year you know thy’re really hurting and injured. The players will have a little extra time to heal before game 2 as it’s a late start with puck drop slated for 8:30 Minnesota time (CST) to accommodate the broadcast schedule on NBC Sports Network. Wild vs Blackhawks follows the early starting New York Islanders vs Pittsburgh Penguins contest. The Wild will be on Fox Sports North where it’s available and NBC Sports Network elsewhere.
The one aspect of Minnesota’s game that has to improve is the offense, specifically scoring. The Wild controlled play for long stretches of game 1, making crisp tape to tape passes, showing great puck handling, and doing every thing you’d want except scoring goals. Don’t get me wrong here I’m not expecting Minnesota to pile up 4,5,6 or more goals against the Chicago defense that has allowed an average of just 2.02 goals against per game, the lowest mark in the NHL. I am expecting them to score more than 1. Basically, a fantastic game in goal by Harding and by the Wild’s defensive corps was wasted because Mikko, Zach, Bouchard and crew couldn’t manage more than 1 goal and 20 shots on goal. Tonight the offense must a) generate more than 6-7 shots per period, b) do a better job with rebound opportunities, and c) win the special teams battle. With Pominville out the lines should look pretty much the same as game 1. The top line of Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Charlie performed well defensively against the Blackhawks top players but could only muster 5 shots on goal during 5 on 5 and power play time. This line has to score for the Wild to have any real hope of beating Chicago tonight and winning the series. The second line was also flying around the ice and had some of the Wild’s best scoring chances all game. Jason Zucker’s shot that rang of the crossbar in OT was just 1 of many chances the line of Matt Cullen, Devin Setoguchi, and Zucker had. There were also a number of shots that missed the net completely along with a tendency to pass up shots on Crawford. Throughout the Wild’s roster a “shoot when the shot presents its self” attitude needs to be in place for tonight’s game and going forward. The third line of Clutterbuck, Kyle Brodziak and Pierre-Marc Bouchard need to remain aggressive on the forecheck, an area the entire team could improve on. Getting the puck behind Chicago’s defense and keeping pressure on goalie Crawford and the defensemen will go along way toward some prime scoring opportunities. The fourth line of Mike Rupp, Zenon Konopka and Torrey Mitchell have to tenderize the Chicago puck carriers and win some face offs in the defensive zone. Keeping the Blackhawks’ bruisers from taking any liberties with our top forwards, winning some defensive zone face offs, and adding Mitchell’s speed deep in the lineup are on their to do list.
What more could you ask from the Minnesota’s defense. The top pair of Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin logged 41:08 and 34:20 in ice time respectively while taking on the likes of Jonathon Toews and Patrick Kane while keeping the rest of the high octane Chicago offense frustrated. The 2nd pair, Jared Spurgeon and recent call up Marco Scandella must keep up their high level of play. Spurgeon also needs to unleash his cannon of a shot from the blue line when the opening presents itself. The two also are also responsible for jump starting the Minnesota offense with quick, accurate first passes out of the defensive zine. The final pair will see a change with the injury to Stoner. Justin Falk should be the one to get the call to action bringing his 6’5″, 215 lb frame into the fray increasing the Wild’s physical presence. One area the Wild need to improve in from game 1 is their physicality in the neutral and defensive zones. Too many times Tuesday the Wild were manhandled and pushed around by the Blackhawks’ large defensemen including Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. If the Wild’s defenders can push back more tonight against Chicago’s defensive pressure it should open up a little bit more room for the Wild’s skilled puck handlers, helping the shot total.
The Blackhawks managed 37 shots on goal in game 1 even with Wild defenders blocking another 21. That’s way too much time in the offensive zone. Minnesota needs to spend more time in the ‘Hawks zone tonight. One thing Chicago did well was limiting the Wild to just one shot at a time in the offensive zone. Increasing the time spent in front of the Chicago goalie, capitalizing on rebound chances is Minnesota’s best chance at scoring more goals. Pretty highlight reel goals are going to be hard to come by. Gathering rebounds, crashing the net, smacking and poking away at pucks in close should produce the dirty, greasy goals that will be the difference in tonight’s game and the rest of the series for the Wild.
The Minnesota Wild showed Tuesday that they are not intimidated or in awe of the Blackhawks, even with the number of younger players and others with little playoff experience. The Wild need another quick start tonight and score the game’s first goal as they did Tuesday,forcing Chicago to play from behind. Another area Minnesota needs to dominate are special teams. Chicago’s lone goal in game 1 came on the power play. Minnesota must stay out of the penalty box, avoiding lazy or dumb penalties that result in power play time for their opponent. While Minnesota does have an excellent PK % this year that time would be better spent in man up rather than man down situations. The two squads combined for just 7 minor penalties Tuesday so power play time is limited. GonePucWild.com will keep you informed of any lineup changes or breaking news as game time approaches. I’ll be back with any updates as soon as they happen. Taking the victory tonight is paramount if the Wild want to make it out of the 1st round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs this season. I’ll be back after the game tonight with a recap and analysis of all the action. Until then this is Scott Drain loudly shouting in the snow covered landscape, “LET’S GO WILD, BEAT THE BLACKHAWKS!!”