CHICAGO – Suddenly, the pressure has shifted squarely onto the defending champs, after consecutive home wins for the Wild evened the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinals with the Chicago Blackhawks at two victories apiece.
But the Wild doesn’t want to take anything for granted when it visits the United Center on Sunday night. Coach Mike Yeo spent Saturday reminding his players to use their first-round experience against the Colorado Avalanche as a lesson.
Just like it did against the Blackhawks, the Wild, down 2-0, returned home for two big victories over the Avalanche. But the Wild took its foot off the gas during an overtime loss at Colorado in Game 5, meaning the Wild had to win Game 6 at home and Game 7 in Denver to advance.
The Wild, looking to stun the hockey world by knocking out the champs, can make life a whole lot easier on itself this time around with a series-altering road victory Sunday.
“You just have to be so careful that you don’t let yourself feel too good,” Yeo said Saturday. “You can’t let your guard down. This is the same team we’re playing that won the Stanley Cup last year. This is the same team that in Games 1 and 2 had us frustrated and had us looking like we were in a pretty deep hole, so we have make sure that we respect what we’ve got going on, what we’re doing, but at the same time, the opponent that we’re playing.”
The Blackhawks, though, showed plenty of signs Friday night of a team that was supremely frustrated by the Wild. Players wore it on their faces during the game and afterward.
Offensively, the Wild sustained pressure all night in the offensive zone. Goals by Justin Fontaine and Jason Pominville came off terrific forechecks. The winning goal off Nino Niederreiter’s snipe came after the Wild easily got through the neutral zone thanks to Jared Spurgeon’s heads-up stretch pass and Charlie Coyle’s cunning touch pass.
Defensively, the Wild executed the same tight, stingy play that led to Game 3’s 4-0 victory. The Wild played as a five-man unit, supported the puck and was always right on top of a Blackhawks player.
“Everywhere you look, they seem to be there,” Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said after the game. “It’s not supposed to be easy. There’s going to be some moments where your stomach drops and you’re not feeling like everything is going your way. That’s the way it goes. You have to find a way to battle through that and create something out of nothing.”
The Wild is 5-0 at home, having outscoring its opponents in the playoffs 16-5 and allowing just 19.6 shots per game. On the road, though, the Wild is 1-5 and has been outscored 26-17.
Allowing one goal per game at home compared to 4.3 per game on the road is proof that the Wild hasn’t defended the same way on the road.
The big challenge for Minnesota: Can it bottle up its stifling home-ice play and transport it to Chicago? Having guaranteed a Game 6 at home in front of its electric home crowd gives Minnesota a tremendous opportunity to upset the Blackhawks if it can steal Sunday’s game in Chicago.
“We just have to make sure we go out with the same attitude and don’t be afraid to make plays,” Niederreiter said. “Usually on the road, we play a little hesitant, almost like we’re waiting until something happens. We have to make sure we go out there and make it happen.
“The first, I’d say, 10 minutes, you’re just kind of testing things out. We have to make sure we don’t let that happen.”
As bad as its playoff road record is, the Wild, 11-5-4 in its final 20 regular-season road games, outplayed Colorado in Game 1 last series only to lose a heartbreaker in overtime. Similarly, the Wild blew a third-period lead in losing Game 5 in overtime. In Game 7, the Wild four times rallied from one-goal deficits before Niederreiter’s overtime winner.
This series, the Wild outchanced and outshot Chicago in Game 1 but lost. The Blackhawks were better in Game 2, but like Game 1, the game was hanging there for the Wild to win.
So it’s not like the Wild has been dominated in Chicago, which could be a reason for confidence Sunday.
“Certainly when you look back to those two games, there were parts of it that were going well and then it was a big mistake that came back at us,” Yeo said. “I think we’ve cut down on our mistakes the last couple games and we have to make sure that we bring that in there.
“But with that, there’s been sort of a little bit more of an aggressive mind-set in how we executed the last couple games, and that’s allowed us to get on the attack a little bit more. It’s a fine line. We have to make sure that we’re playing smart, but we can’t be playing safe. We’ve got to take that attitude into their building.”
Cody McCormick, having a strong postseason on the fourth line, said: “It shouldn’t be that much different on the road. I know there’s [last] line changes [for the home team] and different atmosphere. At the same time, you’re on the ice against the same team every time.”
Dany Heatley said Saturday that the vibe in the room wasn’t a team that was overconfident. Niederreiter, echoing Yeo, said the Wild needs to look back at the Colorado series for reason why it shouldn’t be.
“We went into Colorado [in Game 5] and we kind of thought that it’s just going to happen automatically,” Niederreiter said. “We have to make sure we don’t go in with that attitude.”