The question was: How would the Wild respond?
Tuesday, against a mediocre Dallas team the Wild had been both listless and scoreless. Thursday the opponent was the team with second-best record in the Western Conference.
In a 2-1 victory over the mighty Chicago Blackhawks at Xcel Energy Center, the Wild:
• Came out with amazing focus in a first period to take a 2-0 lead.
• Spent the rest of the game using an effective forecheck to stymie Chicago’s transition offense.
• Came 32 seconds away from handing the defending Stanley Cup champion its first shutout in 120 games.
“That is what we were looking for,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said. “I think it’s a great sign for our team. Hopefully it’s the type of game that builds confidence.”
Jason Pominville and Matt Cooke each scored for the Wild in the first period. Pominville’s goal, his team-leading 20th, came at the end of one of the prettiest rushes by the team this season. Cooke’s tally came minutes after the Wild had failed to score in two minutes’ worth of a 5-on-3 power play, at a point when the game’s momentum could have shifted.
Goaltender Darcy Kuemper was solid for most of the game and better than that at the start of the third period, when the Blackhawks had a number of chances in the first minute. And he did it while wearing Niklas Backstrom’s mask for a good stretch of the second period after his was dented by a shot to the face.
“It didn’t fit me too well,” Kuemper said. “It was hard to see out of. So I had to focus a little bit more there.”
By the way, the game also featured the return of Zach Parise, back on the ice after missing 14 games because of a foot injury. But that wasn’t the top story Thursday. Not even close.
A solid team effort was. The Wild was outshot 34-19, but the scoring chances, while generally limited, were about the same for both teams.
“The biggest thing was how we were going to respond,” Pominville said. “We weren’t too pleased with our effort in Dallas. Tonight, this was a solid effort after a pretty average effort in Dallas.”
In a crisp first period, the Wild took a 1-0 lead on one of the slickest plays of the season. Pominville carried the puck into the zone along the right boards, then sent the puck across to Dany Heatley, who sent it to Mikael Granlund in the slot. Granlund sucked everybody — including Blackhawks goalie Antti Raanta — to one side, then sent a no-look pass back to Pominville, who was skating through the right circle. Pominville scored into essentially an open net.
“Just a lucky guess,” Granlund said of sensing Pominville’s presence. “Sometimes it happens.”
Said Pominville: “He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t really need to know I’m there, he just has a feel for it.”
Then, minutes after the failed 5-on-3, Cooke converted from the right circle after a lunging pass from Justin Fontaine.
For most of the rest of the game, the Wild frustrated the high-flying Hawks. Kuemper was sharp early in the third. And it wasn’t until the closing seconds, with the goalie pulled, that Patrick Kane scored Chicago’s only goal.
Minnesota, 28-20-5 overall, is now 19-7-2 at home and — perhaps most surprising — 3-1 vs. Chicago. Minnesota has won three of its past four.
“I guess you could say they’re our measuring stick,” said Parise, who said he felt good in his return to action. “They’re the best team in the league. Our game elevates when we play them.”