The Minnesota Wild are headed home to the Xcel Energy Center, hoping their postseason undefeated home streak continues tomorrow night against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
Though the team has been down two games to none in these same 2014 playoffs before, there is a lot to be concerned about in this series. First, Minnesota is without the services of No. 1 goaltender Darcy Kuemper (upper-body injury) and key defensive forward Matt Cooke (has one more game of his suspension to serve). Second, the Wild’s big guns have yet to get on the score board two games into the series. Third, Minnesota’s defense that so effectively shut down Colorado’s young stars can’t fully contain Chicago’s stars, but it also doesn’t help that there isn’t any goal support. For Minnesota, there are at least two more games to go in the series, and they plan to play their best hockey of the year tomorrow night on home ice.
Fortunately, there’s one player on the back end that Minnesota didn’t have when it faced Chicago last postseason–Clayton Stoner. Stoner is a third pairing defenseman at best, but what he does well–well–he does really well. Two games into the series, Stoner has a goal and an assists for two points and a plus-1 rating. In addition, he is currently tied with New York Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi for the league lead in postseason hits from defensemen with 29 in nine games.
This postseason, Stoner has shown just how much he may have been missed after skating just 12 shifts for 8:18 of ice-time after being knocked out with an injury in Game One in his only playoff appearance last season. In that game, he would collect an assist for one point, a plus-1 rating and two hits. Like many “average” NHL players, Stoner has been not bad to adequate in the regular season (more than what Chicago forward Bryan Bickell can say), but has kicked his game up a notch or three in the postseason (in which Bickell suddenly looks like the league’s MVP). It could be for a number of reasons. Without Cooke in the lineup, and with forward Mike Rupp being just too slow to dress, Stoner has been the team’s go-to guy in the, shall we say, “leveling the boom” department. He’s come up large, laying the hammer down physically while also scoring a goal and collecting a beautiful assist on Cody McCormick’s goal in yesterday’s 4-1 loss.
He’s also one of five blue liners within the Wild organization set to become unrestricted free agents this offseason. While it’s unknown whether or not Stoner will be re-signed by the club, he’s probably piqued the interest of a few teams around the league in need of a serviceable veteran defenseman.
In a series that has seen a lot of positives but no reward for the Wild, Stoner has proven to be a bright spot on a struggling team…when he isn’t taking a costly penalty or giving Marian Hossa time and space at the Minnesota blue line. Everyone is bound to have a brain fart now and then, but you just can’t allow it to happen against a team like the Blackhawks. I’ll say it again, Chicago is not the team it was last season. However, that hardly makes them any less dangerous when given the opportunity. Minnesota can outplay the ‘Hawks all they want, but a chance here, a chance there, and it’s sure to cost them dearly. Stoner knows this only too well after last season’s gaffe against Hossa in a 1-0 Blackhawks win in the regular season.
Perhaps that’s why he’s been playing so hard in this series–he wants Chicago to make sure it knows he’s a member of the Wild, something the players are reminded of every time they pick up an ice pack.