At its best, the Wild is the hockey equivalent of a pest, a team that makes life difficult for its opponent because it refuses to just go away.
Wild fans witnessed that team for seven glorious games against the Colorado Avalanche in the first round of these Stanley Cup playoffs. The Wild played feisty and brought an unmistakable edginess to its game. It refused to concede even an inch of ice.
Can somebody locate that group of players and have them report to Xcel Energy Center on Tuesday night before the team’s postseason ends in a whisper?
The Wild trails the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks 2-0, and this best-of-seven series has no chance of lasting long if the Wild doesn’t offer more resistance.
So far, the series really hasn’t produced anything that resembles playoff intensity or nastiness. It’s been rather ho-hum. It’s lacked the drama, animosity and tension that made that Avs series so compelling. There hasn’t even been one roughing penalty, for Pete’s sake.
The Blackhawks have won both games in workmanlike fashion and are just cruising along. The Wild, meanwhile, has looked lethargic, especially in Game 2, and now would be a good time to rekindle that dogged attitude that it revealed last series.
“We definitely haven’t shown what we’re capable of,” winger Charlie Coyle said. “We haven’t been on our game. We haven’t had that grittiness that we brought last series.”
Maybe being at home and feeding off the energy of their fans will help provide that emotional spark. And maybe the team’s big guns — Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Jason Pominville, specifically — will decide to jump into the fray and contribute some offense. That would be helpful.
The Wild needs to make the Blackhawks sweat a little, or else this series will look and feel a lot like that five-game snoozer in the playoffs last season.
“I don’t think that we’ve been easy to play against,” coach Mike Yeo said.
Yes, it’s true that both games were either tied or had a one-goal deficit in the third period. Technically, that means both games were close and winnable. But did anyone honestly get the impression that the Blackhawks ever were in trouble or nervous? Or even on the ropes?
Take Game 1, for example. The Wild scored twice in the third period to tie the score. Momentum started to change sides and then boom, Patrick Kane dashed down the ice and beat Ilya Bryzgalov with a spectacular goal and, well, that was that.
The Wild continues to cling to the fact that it found itself in this same predicament against Colorado, down 2-0 coming home. But the obvious difference is that the Blackhawks aren’t the Avs. They won’t lose patience or poise if the Wild can turn up the heat and extend this series.
“We’re not that far off,” Yeo repeated Monday.
That sentiment doesn’t apply when looking strictly at talent. Put it this way: If someone asked you before the series began to pick the top six forwards from either team, who would you choose? Five should be locks: Chicago’s Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Parise. The sixth is a tossup, but for argument’s sake, we’ll pick a Wild player, either Pominville or Koivu.
Now select the top four defensemen. Again, easy choices: Chicago’s Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson and the Wild’s Ryan Suter.
The goalie choice is a no-brainer: Chicago’s Corey Crawford.
So of the top 11 players in this series, at best the Wild has three.
In other words, the Wild can’t out-skill the Blackhawks; it has to outwork them.
The Wild managed to dominate puck possession time last series because the Avalanche had shaky defensemen who became frantic when faced with relentless pressure. For all the talk about Chicago’s world-class skill at forward, the Blackhawks also are blessed with a savvy, mobile defensive corps. They won’t panic too often.
That doesn’t mean the Wild can’t be disruptive and pesky and make things tough on the Blackhawks. That starts with more energy, a better forecheck and more pucks thrown at Crawford. And the team’s best players have to step up and give more.
If the Wild can rediscover that feistiness, this can turn into an interesting series. If not, it probably won’t feel much different from the way things ended last season.
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org