The Wild made its statement Sunday by outhitting the Chicago Blackhawks by nearly a 3-to-1 margin in Game 3.
Now comes the response.
“We have to have the same physical mentality,” said Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook, who ended up on the wrong end of a body blow by Jason Zucker in the second period. “It starts with me. I wasn’t very physical last game. We’ve got to come out and play playoff hockey. I don’t think we’ve played it yet.”
Judging by the tone, mood and body language inside the Blackhawks dressing room Monday afternoon, the Wild can expect to see a ticked-off opponent in a pivotal Game 4 at Xcel Energy Center. But then, the Wild already knew that.
“That’s the nature of the playoffs,” veteran Matt Cullen said. “Each team tries to respond after a loss in a tough game.”
In playoff hockey, any action usually inspires a reaction, and the Hawks seem eager to get back on the ice after the Wild took the fight to them in a 3-2 overtime victory. Unable to match Chicago’s speed or high-end skill, the Wild clamped down with a more dogged approach, finishing with a 34-13 edge in hits.
Afterward, Wild rookie Charlie Coyle said the Hawks started “looking over their shoulder when they got the puck. They knew someone was coming.” A day later, the Blackhawks weren’t inclined to engage in back-and-forth dialogue, but they took notice of the discrepancy in hits and physical play.
“They outhit us a lot,” Bryan Bickell said. “It’s a little slap on our wrist and we’re not happy about that game. We need to pick our game up quite a bit.”
The Wild can expect a different response from Chicago on Tuesday. Not necessarily a donnybrook or anything like that, though coach Joel Quenneville noted that agitator Dan Carcillo might be in the lineup, which certainly would dial up the heat a few degrees.
But the Hawks didn’t like their intensity overall in Game 3. They didn’t control the puck as much or get as many shots on net as they normally do, which underscored the effectiveness of the Wild’s physical approach. In more simple terms, the Wild played desperate and the Blackhawks didn’t.
“I think we need to just ramp up the intensity a little bit,” Chicago’s Patrick Kane said. “I think we played pretty well in Game 2, but the other two games really weren’t playoff hockey for us.”
Make no mistake, Game 4 will be Chicago’s best effort of the series. Still leading 2-1, the Blackhawks don’t want to return to St. Paul for a Game 6. They didn’t play to their standards Sunday, so now the Wild expects to see an equally desperate team. One gets the feeling this series will take on a nastier tone from this point forward.
“I think when you watch other playoff series you can see the animosity, the hatred, the battles,” Quenneville said. “That’s playoff hockey. That’s the level we’ve got to get to.”
This is what makes playoff hockey so darn compelling. The ebb and flow of a series, the way the intensity grows with each game, the shifts in momentum. The Wild has a chance to make this series really interesting by winning Game 4. But that will require an even stronger performance than what it showed on Sunday.
“We expect a big push from them,” Devin Setoguchi said. “And if we’re not ready, it could be trouble.”
The Blackhawks rely on skill more than brawn, but they’re accustomed to this game plan. Few teams can run and gun with them, so opponents try and disrupt the Hawks and make them uncomfortable by getting physical. Kane tried to downplay the notion that Chicago needs to respond in kind.
“Sometimes you [can] think a little bit too much about that rather than just playing the game,” he said. “Yeah, you want to be physical and ramp up the intensity and bring a little bit more playoff hockey. But we’re just going to play our game. Sometimes you can get yourself off your game by playing too physical. Or if you don’t fight back then it seems like they might have an edge there, too. Maybe a little mix of both.”
In other words, the intensity should jump a few notches in Game 4. Suddenly, this feels like a playoff series.