Chicago – The dressing area of the Wild’s locker room at United Center was mostly empty when visitors arrived after the game on Sunday afternoon. Nameplates had been removed from the lockers, prompting those not familiar with the team to ask which player was Zach Parise.
That’s not surprising. In seven playoff games over the past two seasons, the Chicago Blackhawks have rendered the Wild’s stars anonymous.
Sunday, the Blackhawks beat the Wild 4-1, taking a 2-0 lead in the series. They held the Wild to two shots in the first period and four in the third. More important, Chicago’s defense made the Wild’s best offensive players look as if they were too stuffed with deep-dish pizza and Goose Island ale to function.
“We recognize we have to create more to be a better team,” captain Mikko Koivu said. “I thought we did that in the second and the third. We have to find another notch to create, but then to score goals, too. It’s not easy. That’s a tough team defensively and their goaltender is playing very well right now. We have to find it. We have to be better around their net and find those pucks.”
Cody McCormick scored the Wild’s only goal, with beautiful assists from Erik Haula and Clayton Stoner, and that play was not as much an aberration as you would think. The Wild’s checking lines have outperformed their money players in the first two games.
“It’s a team game,” Parise said.
And the team pays some players to score. That’s what all the zeros at the end of the check symbolize — pucks in nets.
The Wild’s three leading point-producers during the regular season were Jason Pominville, Parise and Koivu. The team added Matt Moulson at the trading deadline to improve its scoring. The Blackhawks have made that foursome look like toothless checkers.
In seven playoff games against Chicago over the past two seasons, Koivu has produced zero points. His plus-minus rating is minus-9. Parise has produced two points. His rating is minus-10.
Pominville, who was injured during last year’s playoffs, has produced one assist in two games against the Blackhawks this year and is minus-2. Moulson, who looks as if he would rather hitch a ride on the nearest Zamboni than skate, has not produced a point and is minus-2 in this series.
“We’ve got to generate more offense,” forward Charlie Coyle said. “We can’t just have a couple chances and think we’re going to score and win.”
Parise and Koivu combined for five shots, with Parise bouncing a shot off Chicago goalie Corey Crawford that almost blooped in. Pominville managed as many shots on goal as Wild goalie Ilya Bryzgalov — zero.
“They’re good,” Parise said of the Blackhawks. “They play a good defensive system, they’re mobile on D, they block a lot of shots, they’re so good with the puck, they make good plays and they spring their forwards, and I think we can probably do a better job against them, making them work more.”
The Wild’s mantra entering this series was that it had become a better team in the last year, which is demonstrably true in many ways, but the Blackhawks did not get the memo.
With Moulson disappearing, Pominville struggling and Parise and Koivu failing to score, the Blackhawks looked primed to coast through a playoff series with the Wild for the second consecutive season.
Wild coach Mike Yeo said his staff will try to put his players in better positions in Game 3. He said his team looked tired Sunday, so he’s giving the players the day off Monday. He juggled lines again on Sunday, and might look for some unusual combinations going forward.
None of which will matter if Parise, Koivu and Pominville can’t score.
The Wild has produced three goals in this series — by Stoner, Kyle Brodziak and McCormick. The Wild will not beat the defending champs with Bryzgalov in goal and its best scorers firing wide of the net.
The Wild might not even beat the Blackhawks with its best players firing at the corners, but it’s worth a try.