A powerless power play, along with an injury to goalie Josh Harding, left Thursday's Game 5 as a must-win for the Wild.
The Wild’s season is on the brink, its power play is in shambles, its two best forwards can’t score and continue to be on the ice for goals against and its trainer’s room is starting to become a triage for goaltenders.
The Chicago Blackhawks, the best team in the NHL from start to finish, put on a defensive clinic Tuesday night and frustrated the Wild every step en route to a 3-0 victory in front of 19,378 fans at Xcel Energy Center.
The Wild had hoped to turn the Western Conference quarterfinals into a best-of-three but instead returns to Chicago for Thursday’s Game 5 down three games to one.
“It’s do or die,” defenseman Ryan Suter said. “Every single guy has to play their best game if we want a chance to keep at this thing. It’s tough to reset. But we have to go in there with a mind-set of, ‘Hey, we have nothing to lose.’ ”
One question: Who’s in goal?
Josh Harding, who took over for Niklas Backstrom when he got hurt during warm-ups before Game 1, injured his left leg Tuesday. That led to rookie Darcy Kuemper making his playoff debut to open the second period.
Backstrom, in street clothes, tossed on pads to back up Kuemper in the third period, but regardless, none of the goalies can score goals.
The Wild has six goals in the series. Its power play is a ghastly 0-for-15, going 0-for-6 Tuesday with ample opportunity to get back into a game that was hanging there.
“It’s tough when you have a lot of chances on your power play and you have nothing to show for it,” Suter said. “We had some good looks, but I guess it doesn’t matter if you don’t score.”
Patrick Sharp scored twice for Chicago, Bryan Bickell once and Corey Crawford made 25 saves for his second career postseason shutout.
The Blackhawks, who gave up the fewest goals in the NHL during the regular season, did a masterful job clamping down defensively, collapsing down low and getting into shooting lanes all night. They blocked 26 shots. The Wild missed another 17.
“They’re passive, so it looks like we’ve got a lot of time … and room,” Wild forward Zach Parise said. “But they do a good job of getting in the shooting lane. So we have to figure out how to get through that.”
Koivu and Parise were each minus-2. Koivu, who doesn’t have a point through four games, is minus-5. Parise is minus-6. They attempted 20 shots on net — 12 that were either blocked or missed the cage.
“It probably wasn’t the greatest of nights, but if you know them the way I do, you are very excited to see them play Thursday night,” coach Mike Yeo said.
Koivu, who seems to be nursing a lower-body injury, admitted frustration, saying, “Obviously it’s hard. It’s tough when you’re trying to create and it’s not going in.”
In the first period, with the Wild playing well, momentum was doused when Koivu’s pass to an exiting-the-zone Parise was intercepted by two-way star Marian Hossa. One move and one pass later, and Sharp deflected Michal Handzus’ shot.
“Mikko was trying to spring us for a 2-on-1,” Parise said. “It’s the right play by him. If that gets through, we’ve got a 2-on-1. Unfortunately it didn’t.”
With 4 ½ minutes left in the first, Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews lost a puck and landed on top of Harding.
Harding was slow to get up. At the next stoppage, he began flexing his left leg. He gutted it out the rest of the period, but an ice-cold Kuemper led the Wild onto the ice for the second.
Sixty-two seconds in, after Parise’s errant pass was picked off by Sharp, Kuemper gave up a goal he should have stopped.
“Tough situation for Kuemps to come in,” Yeo said.
From there, the Wild’s power play continued to fail, including consecutive power plays to start the third.
“That’s the difference,” Koivu said. “We couldn’t capitalize on those chances. You can’t score. You can’t win a hockey game.”
Now the Wild must somehow reel off three consecutive victories to ensure its season doesn’t end.
“You guys count us out quite a bit,” Parise said tersely. “So we’ll have to rebound and work on winning that next game and getting this series back here.”