You could describe the Wild, which might have played its best checking game of the season in beating Chicago 3-2 in overtime on Sunday, as a team on a roller coaster.
The Wild outshot the NHL’s highest-scoring team 29-17 over the first 40 minutes of Game 3 of the first-round playoff series. But after the Wild took a 2-1 lead on Zach Parise’s third-period goal, the Blackhawks dominated the rest of the third period, eventually tying the score and forcing overtime. The Wild finished with a 37-27 advantage in shots on goal.
Jason Zucker scored 2 minutes, 15 seconds into OT, giving the Wild a playoff victory before a capacity crowd that cheered the home team on from the moment the puck dropped.
General Manager Chuck Fletcher believed that this victory would give the Wild some confidence going into Tuesday’s Game 4 at home. The Wild will have a chance to tie the series at two games apiece.
How would you figure this team out after watching it play so well Sunday?
The Wild ended the season on a rough stretch, almost falling all of the way out of the playoffs after leading the division. On April 18, the Wild lost at San Jose 6-1, and it followed that two days later with a 4-1 loss at home to Calgary, a team that missed the playoffs.
That was followed by a big 2-1 home victory over defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles on April 23. But with a chance to clinch a playoff berth in the second-to-last game of the season, the Wild instead lost another home game to Edmonton, a team that missed the playoffs. The Wild gave up three first-period goals to the Oilers and fell 6-1.
Those losses, combined with victories by Columbus, meant the Wild had to win its season finale at Colorado to simply make the playoffs. The Wild did win 3-1, earning the matchup with Chicago.
Game 1 at United Center was very competitive, even with Josh Harding having to start in goal for the injured Niklas Backstrom, as the Wild lost 2-1 in overtime. But Game 2 was reminiscent of the Wild’s struggles toward the end of the season, as the Blackhawks dominated on their way to an easy 5-2 victory.
The top line of Parise, Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle hadn’t scored a goal in the playoffs until Parise’s go-ahead goal Sunday. Coyle does have two assists, but Koivu does not have a point.
The big star of the playoffs for the Wild has to be Harding, who has been outstanding after essentially not playing all season. Harding, who is suffering from multiple sclerosis, stopped 25 shots for the Wild on Sunday, while Chicago goalie Corey Crawford made 34 saves as the Wild failed to capitalize on a number of good chances to score.
Tommy Thompson, the former assistant general manager with the Wild and now a scout with the New York Rangers, attended the game and saw a few of his former players on the ice. Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Stephane Veilleux are the only two Wild players who were with the team in 2002-03, when it went to the Western Conference finals. Veilleux did not play in any playoff games in 2003, and Sunday’s game was his first game in a Wild uniform this season after he spent most of the year with Houston of the American Hockey League.
Besides those two, Koivu, Harding and Backstrom are the only players left from the Wild’s last playoff team.
Thompson has a lot of respect for the Blackhawks and believed it was an accomplishment for the Wild to play them as tough as the team did. “They were the best team in the regular season,” Thompson said.
What makes them so good?
“The fact that they have a lot of people in their lineup that can score, they have four lines that can put pressure on you and all their defensemen can handle the puck and join the offense,” Thompson said.