The Western Conference Quarterfinal Playoff series between the Minnesota Wild and the Chicago Blackhawks shifts to the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul with the ‘Hawks holding a two games to none lead in the best of seven series. This will be the first playoff game Minnesota has played in front of their home fans in 5 years. The Wild are glad to be playing in front of 19,000+ mostly supportive fans as they try to cut into Chicago’s 2-0 series lead. One thing Minnesota needs is, a short memory after the 5-2 beating they suffered in Chicago on Friday at the United Center. The Wild must win Sunday afternoon or fall behind 3-0 in the series. To take the victory Minnesota must slow down the Blackhawks high powered offense while converting on their own scoring chances. The Wild have to ramp up their effectiveness on the forecheck and spend more time in the Chicago zone than they did in Friday’s loss. Chcago has scored 7 goals to Minnesota’s 3 in 120 minutes of play and out shot them 85 to 54 over that span. Wild goal tender Josh Harding has taken the losses in both games. He was called up on when starting net minder Niklas Backstrom was injured during pregame warmups before the series opener. The Wild have averaged 1-1/2 goals so far in the series, that needs to change if the Wild are to have any hope of winning this afternoon. The top line of Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Charlie Coyle have been conspicuously absent on the score sheet thus far in the playoffs. The group has totaled o goals and o assists in the first two games. That cannot continue if the Wild are to win a single game let alone the series. Scoring is a premium with both squads battling for every goal against top flight goal tending. This afternoon the Wild have to get the jump on the Blackhawks. A quick start is paramount to their hopes of winning. I’ll predict right here that the team that scores the first goal will take the victory in game three. Minnesota needs to score first and keep the pressure on Chicago. They did just that in game one scoring in the first 5 minutes of the opening period. The Wild have to keep Chicago back on their heels, playing catch-up hockey. Puck control and special teams play will make the difference between winning and losing today. So far in the series the Wild have gone 0 for 6 on the power play and killed off 6 of 7 chances in man down situations. Neither team has excelled on the power play, a testament to both squads defensive abilities.
The big question for Minnesota is who will be between the pipes this afternoon. Niklas Backstrom traveled with the team to Chicago and is listed as day to day on the injury list. Even if he is healthy, Wild head Coach will have a tough decision to make as to who gets the start today. Backstrom has been the Wild’s work horse in net winning a league leading 24 games during the regular season, a 2.48 goals against average and a .909 save %. Josh Harding was brilliant in goal during game one of the series giving the Wild a chance at a victory, but the goal support from his team mates never materialized. Chicago is having goalie problems as well. Ray Emery has been listed as day to day with a lower body injury leaving the starts to Corey Crawford who has limited the Wild to just 3 goals total in games on and two.
The Wild have been without Jason Pominville so for in this series as well. He’s listed as day to day with an upper body injury suffered when he was illegally elbowed in the head by Justin Brown of the LA Kings. Minnesota has missed his contributions to the offense, he had 4 goals and 5 assists in 9 games before being injured. His return would shake things up offensively for the Wild. Currently the forward lines are Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Charlie Coyle on the top ine. The second line of Matt Cullen, Devin Setoguchi and rookie speedster Jason Zucker produced 4 points last game, the most of any forward line. The third line of Cal Clutterbuck, Kyle Brodziak and Pierre-Marc Bouchard scored the lone goal in game one and had some good chances in game 2. The fourth line of Mike Rupp, Zenon Konopka and Torrey Mitchell provides some grit and toughness that stops Chicago from taking too may liberties with the Wild’s skill players.
Defensively the Wild have been a Jekyll and Hyde group, brilliant in game one and struggling mightily in game two. I find it hard to blame the defensive corps for the Wild’s two losses so far in this series. The fact is, this is a Chicago team that’s is tough to shut out or shut down offensively. They are going to score goals, the Blackhawks averaged 3.10 goals per game this season, 2nd in the NHL. The top team is goals per game was the Pittsburgh Penguins with 3.38. The Wild entered the postseason averaging 2.46 good for 22nd in the league. The Minnesota defense has their work cut out for them today, but they have shown they can shut down the Blackhawks this season. Back on January 30th the Wild were the team to snap Chicago’s 6 game winning streak to start the season, winning in a shootout 3-2. That’s the kind of defensive effort the Wild need tonight, nothing less will do. If the offense can score 3 or more the defense can take that kind of run support and skate with it. Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin will be up against the top lines for the ‘Hawks racking up the minutes as usual. Jared Spurgeon will be paired once again with Marco Scandella who scored his first playoff goal in Friday’s loss in Chicago. Spurgeon has a cannon of a shot from the point, most often seen during power plays. He needs to unleash that beast more often, starting today. Getting the puck to the front of the net where the forwards can go to work on the rebounds goes a long way toward a goal. The third pair last game was Tom Gilbert and Justin Falk. If Head Coach Yeo wants to change things up on defense we could see Clayton Stoner, or Brett Clark return to the lineup. Overall the Minnesota defense must play a tighter game than the one on Friday. Pinching in to support the offense is great, just be mindful of who’s on the ice when you try it so you don’t end up chasing a break away or a two on on against your D partner.
The bottom line is the Wild have to approach this game as though their life depended on it. Going down to 3-0 to the Blackhawks puts a comeback into the possible,but not in the least probable category. Today is the Wild’s day to shine. They must to get a good start. They must have better puck possession and time in the offensive zone. They must crash the net, shoot and shoot often. They must play hard nosed, responsible defense. They must get a great performance from the starting goal tender, whether it’s Harding or Backstrom. Finally they must play as one cohesive unit, supporting one another and united toward a common goal. If the Minnesota Wild can do thees things against the Chicago Blackhawks to day they will cut into the Blackhawks’ 2-0 series lead and live to play another day. If they don’t they are down 3-0 and the season ‘s end is near. GonePuckWIld.com will keep you informed with all the news and information you need on your Minnesota Wild. I’ll be back after the game with a recap and analyis. Until then this is Scott Drain shouting confidently, LET’S GO WILD- BEAT THE ‘HAWKS!!