The Wild’s first two games against the Chicago Blackhawks — both losses — didn’t resemble your typical hostile playoff series.
So before Sunday’s Game 3 matinee, Mike Yeo demanded more hatred and physicality.
The Wild coach believes one way to neutralize the high-octane Blackhawks is to punish them physically, especially their defensemen. The Wild did just that Sunday, setting an abrasive, in-your-face tone early and often before pulling off a 3-2 overtime victory for its first playoff win in five years at Xcel Energy Center.
In front an electric crowd of 19,238 pumped-up patrons, rookie Jason Zucker, a crossbar away from winning Game 1 in overtime, scored 2 minutes, 15 seconds into OT. His first thought after scoring what the former University of Denver star called “by far the biggest goal I ever scored:”
“Jump into the glass.”
The 21-year-old did, then was mobbed by teammates after beating Corey Crawford shortside to make the Western Conference quarterfinals a series heading into Tuesday’s Game 4.
“It’s better than being down 3-nothing,” said Zach Parise, who gave the Wild a 2-1 lead early in the third period before defenseman Duncan Keith quieted an amped-up arena by forcing overtime with 2:46 left. “Our effort level was better, our competitiveness was much better. I think the next one is just as important.”
Josh Harding, making his third start in a row in this series, made 25 saves for his first career playoff victory, and Pierre-Marc Bouchard had a goal and an assist.
In overtime, Bouchard hopped on the ice when Devin Setoguchi skated off for a change. That created a 3-on-2 with Setoguchi’s linemates, Matt Cullen and Zucker. Cullen was tripped behind the net by Andrew Shaw, but from his belly the veteran reached with his right arm to get the puck to Zucker, who had missed some shifts in the third because of a medical issue.
“The passes that guy makes are ridiculous,” Zucker said. “I don’t know how he makes half of them.”
Parise, after rookie Charlie Coyle kept a puck in the Blackhawks end and won a battle with Michal Rozsival, took Coyle’s pass and scored an almost identical goal to Bouchard’s first-period tally — a backhand over Crawford’s glove under the bar.
But in the final half of the third period, the Wild, up 2-1, went from attacking all game to almost prevent-defense mode. It nearly cost them when Keith teed up the tying goal.
“It’s almost [natural]. Got too passive,” Parise said.
But Setoguchi said there was one message before overtime: “We’re not leaving the ice without a win.”
A loss would have been a shame. The crowd was excited from the beginning. With fans ready to spur the Wild, a spine-tingling moment came when Jack Jablonski, the paralyzed student-athlete from Benilde-St. Margaret’s, emerged as the flag bearer before the opening puck drop.
From there, the Wild established itself physically. The Wild was credited for outhitting Chicago 17-4 in the first period and 34-13 in the game. Cal Clutterbuck had a game-high eight. Setoguchi had seven. At the second-period buzzer, Zucker popped Brent Seabrook, then stood over the defenseman who took some runs at him in Games 1 and 2.
“He’s a big guy. I was surprised he went down,” Zucker said, grinning.
Setoguchi said: “The physicality of the game helped get everyone involved. It got the fans involved … and ultimately kick-started the game for us.”
Added Cullen: “That felt a lot more like a playoff game. The first two games, we were a little too quiet.”
Said Coyle: “You could tell they were looking over their shoulder. They knew someone was coming.”
Just like the Blackhawks did in Game 2, the Wild took its game to another level Sunday. The key now is to not let up Tuesday in Game 4.
“This was a huge, huge win for us,” Yeo said. “That said, we’re still trailing in this series. And I expect to see a better opponent, a very desperate opponent come our next game.”