CHICAGO – For Chicago fans who cringed their way through the past two games in Minnesota, the style of hockey was easily described as boring. The Wild would prefer that you call it what it is: effective.
Or use a term the Blackhawks have become quite familiar with: frustrating.
However you describe it, the Wild finally has slowed the Blackhawks’ high-energy game, and knotted the series at two victories apiece as the second round returns to Chicago for Game 5 on Sunday night.
The simple plays that made the Blackhawks so tough to stop either aren’t working, or aren’t attainable. Both accounts are worrisome for a team that prides itself on possessing the puck.
For all the finesse plays the talented Blackhawks are more than capable of creating, none apparently have worked against the Wild lately.
“They try to slow you down for sure,” Chicago center Michal Handzus said. “They clog up the neutral zone and you have to get through it with speed. If we play a simple game, get speed through the neutral zone, you can get more shots.”
It’s not all that surprising. The Blackhawks admitted early on in this series that the Wild wouldn’t allow for the wide-open style of play in which Chicago thrives. Even before Game 1, coach Joel Quenneville mentioned how his team would have to adjust their game to compete against the Wild. And for two games, that plan worked.
The Hawks made short passes out of the zone, quickly got the puck past center ice and dumped it deep behind the net before outmuscling defenders to win it back.
The Wild’s turnover-inducing neutral zone attack was eliminated. Stacking the blue line became a waste of time, too. Chicago wasn’t using its usual stretch pass to gain the zone; it was using a smart effort.
So when the Blackhawks abandoned that plan in Games 3 and 4 — instead opting to try and create more off the rush, and losing battles along the boards — the simple plays opened up for the Wild.
“I think it’s reflecting of our intensity,” Hawks captain Jonathan Toews said after Game 4. “They worked for their chances. They worked for everything they got. We have to do the same.”
It also explains why Chicago has been held to 22 shots at most in each game this series — a feat that’s taken place a total of eight times in their past 85 playoff games.
“Being more in their zone is part of what we’re talking about and having the puck a little bit more,” Quenneville said. “That’s more of the one-on-one confrontations that we haven’t been up to par.”
The key to the Wild’s neutral zone defense is their forwards’ ability to outnumber the Blackhawks on the strong side of the ice, and force the puck into clogged passing lanes. In Game 1 and 2, when the Blackhawks simplified their attack, the Wild forced only seven takeaways. When the Blackhawks switched things up in Game 3 and 4, the Wild came up with 22 steals.
“It’s pressure,” Quenneville said of Minnesota’s defense in the neutral zone. “They’re coming at us hard. There’s not a lot of time, there’s not a lot of space and they’ve got a real tight gap. They don’t give up odd-man breaks, so trying to get through it fast and cleanly and simple is what you’re trying to do.”