So now what?
That’s the only pertinent question for this plucky Wild team.
The Wild made its Western Conference semifinal against the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks more interesting by winning Game 3 to avoid a Grand Canyon-sized hole, a predicament that would have brought their summertime vacation plans into clear view.
In doing so, the Wild showed once again that it’s capable of responding forcefully to a gut-check situation. This team hasn’t looked nervous or overwhelmed when backed into a tight spot.
That margin for error remains minuscule, though.
“We’re not sitting here saying that we have arrived,” coach Mike Yeo said.
In a way, nothing’s changed. The Wild still finds itself in a similar position. The outcome of Game 3 means little if the Wild can’t duplicate it in Game 4.
The players better cling to that desperation because a loss at home Friday night would leave the Wild in a position that no team wants to experience. Another victory and, well, this thing becomes a real series.
“They’re probably champing at the bit to get going again,” Wild defenseman Ryan Suter said. “And we have to have that same urgency and the same intensity we had [in Game 3].”
It’s a little silly to rank a certain game in a best-of-seven series as more important than another because it’s the playoffs. Every game is stressful. But if Game 7 represents the pinnacle of pressure, Game 4 usually serves as the swing game.
In NHL postseason history, teams that take a 3-1 lead own a 246-26 record. The Wild overcame that deficit twice in back-to-back series in 2003. That’s not the preferred path.
“The importance of this game [is] a chance to even the series and hopefully put a little pressure on them going back to Chicago,” Yeo said.
The Wild has an opportunity to prove that this team is different, to demonstrate that it truly has closed the gap on the Blackhawks. Postseason success often follows a step-by-step process, and the Wild can hit another meaningful benchmark with its response.
The Wild stood in this exact same position last season. The Blackhawks started that series 2-0, lost Game 3 at Xcel Energy Center and then drilled the Wild the next two games by a combined score of 8-1.
“Last year really has no impact on this season or anything,” Wild winger Zach Parise said. “We know it’s a good team. We have to play a lot better game than Game 3. We played OK.”
Yeo caused reporters to perk up before Game 3 when he acknowledged that the Blackhawks represent a mental hurdle for his team. Yeo said he believes his team has “leveled the playing field” in terms of puck possession, generating scoring chances and being able to handle Chicago’s world-class skill. The next step, he said, is to push through that mental barrier.
One victory, however, doesn’t cut it. One victory shouldn’t be misconstrued as clearing a hurdle. It’s merely a step in the process, which is why Yeo wisely tempered the mood and kept things in proper perspective after a 4-0 victory Tuesday.
“We’re not sitting here patting ourselves on the back,” he said.
The reason should be an easy sell to his players: They haven’t played their best game yet. The Wild executed the right game plan in Game 3 in terms of smothering the Blackhawks defensively and not allowing the Kane-Toews-Hossa-Sharp monster to run wild.
But the Wild still can play better and must play better, because the Blackhawks haven’t brought their full fury to this series yet, either. It’s almost as if they’re waiting patiently for the right moment to strike.
“I don’t think we’ve seen their best,” Suter said.
The guess here is that the Blackhawks crank it up in Game 4. They’ll probably come out flying offensively and throw a flurry at the Wild, which will need to withstand it and counterpunch.
This situation is nothing new for the Wild. It didn’t buckle when trailing the Colorado Avalanche 2-0 in the first round, or when it faced a must-win in Game 6, or when it trailed four different times in Game 7.
It doesn’t take a hockey savant to recognize that the Blackhawks are far superior to the Avs, but the Wild has proved to be a feisty bunch. It gave itself a chance to make this a series in Game 3.
So now what?