Playoff hockey’s return to the X will bring hope — and a real threat of more hurt.
In sports, the goal is always moving. The Minnesota Wild and the team’s fans have been craving a playoff team, a home playoff game, for five years. Today their wishes will mingle with their fears.
The Wild will, finally, host a playoff game at the beautiful arena in downtown St. Paul. Fans will celebrate on 7th Street before the game. If their team loses on Sunday afternoon, they may mourn the season in the same establishments after the game.
The reward for signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, for bringing up the talented kids and heightening expectations, turned out to be what on Friday night felt like a punishment: facing the best team in hockey. The Chicago Blackhawks arrive in St. Paul as locusts at a picnic, heavy favorites one victory away from turning the remainder of the series into a formality.
If is it possible for a series to devolve within two games, this one has. The Wild surprised the Blackhawks with a feisty first period in Game 1, taking an early lead and stretching the game deep into the first overtime.
Game 2 made that seem more like a missed opportunity than an omen, as Chicago overwhelmed the Wild, winning 5-2.
Now the Wild will rely on the comforts of the Xcel Energy Center, although the players know that citing home-ice advantage is more an expression of hope than fact.
They won one of their last seven home games. In their last game at the X, they lost 6-1 to the Edmonton Oilers, a result that threatened to knock them out of the playoffs. They were booed off the ice often in the past month, and jeered whenever their power play failed.
Parise mentioned how “fun’’ it was to play at the raucous United Center. Only he knows if that was a poke-check at the locals.
“I think this place is going to be rocking,’’ coach Mike Yeo said. “And we’re excited for that. We wish it was a different scenario, instead of coming back down 2-0, but the reality is that we’re going into the game with the opportunity to play the first home game in five years, and we should be excited about that.
“Because we’re down 2-0, that doesn’t mean the series is over. I myself have been a part of series where we’ve come back from being down 2-0, and I know there are other people on the team that have as well.’’
The tactical advantage of playing at home is that the home coach gets to match his lines, but that might not be as advantageous against the Blackhawks as against other teams. Chicago is remarkably deep and didn’t seem concerned in Game 2 about matching lines with the Wild.
And if the Wild’s first line of Parise, Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle isn’t matched against the Blackhawks’ first line led by Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa, Toews and Hossa could become bigger factors offensively.
“You can feed off your own crowd, but you can’t expect anything different from Chicago,’’ Wild forward Devin Setoguchi said. “You know what they’re going to do. It’s nice to be at home, but the game is not going to be any easier. We’re playing the best team in the league. We need to raise our game.’’
Yeo admitted he has considered splitting up Parise and Koivu, but there aren’t many meaningful changes he can make. This isn’t football. There are no onside kicks or flea flickers. That’s why hockey coaches and players talk so much about effort. There is no substitute for beating the other team to the puck.
“We’re looking forward to Game 3, I think,’’ Parise said. “Most important, I think we’re looking forward to having a better effort and putting forward a better effort than we did in Game 2. You could tell they brought a different level from Game 1 to Game 2. We didn’t do that.’’
The Wild faces two challenges today: competing with the best team in the league, and exciting what has become a jaded fan base. The two, of course, are one and the same.
Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN.
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