For those who worried the Chicago Blackhawks would return to the Twin Cities with recharged batteries after two off days in the Windy City …
Instead, it was the Wild that revved its engine and hit fifth gear Friday night by overwhelming the defending Stanley Cup champs from start to finish of a 4-2 victory in front of 19,405 fans at Xcel Energy Center.
“They worked for their chances. They worked for everything they got,” Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. “We have to do the same. I don’t really know how to explain it. We have to be better.”
For the second consecutive playoff round, the Wild rallied from an 0-2 series deficit thanks to consecutive home victories to turn a Western Conference series into a best-of-three. Minnesota eliminated Colorado in the first round.
Game 5 of the Western semifinals is Sunday night in Chicago.
“It’s a step, but the next one’s bigger,” coach Mike Yeo said. “We’re not here to just try to make a series of it.”
The Wild, 5-0 at home in the playoffs with five goals allowed, outshot the Blackhawks 31-20, holding Chicago to 22 or fewer shots for the fourth time in the series.
“They play hard in their building, and they’re good in their building, and they check well,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “It’s tough to get momentum in here.”
The Wild got goals from Justin Fontaine, Jason Pominville, Nino Niederreiter and Jared Spurgeon with Ilya Bryzgalov besting goaltending counterpart Corey Crawford. Each goalie traded a couple of soft goals with some dynamite saves, none bigger than Bryzgalov robbing Patrick Sharp on a second-period breakaway to preserve a 3-2 lead. He also robbed Jeremy Morin from point-blank range in the third to preserve a 4-2 lead.
That two-goal edge was courtesy of Mikko Koivu setting up Spurgeon for a power-play goal with 16:13 remaining in the third. It was the fourth time the Wild had a chance to turn a 3-2 lead into a 4-2 lead on a power play, and it finally did so.
The pace Friday was fast and intense. The Wild was suffocating defensively and spent a lot of time circling Crawford’s zone.
“This isn’t anything we didn’t expect,” Sharp said. “They threw a lot of speed at us.”
Matt Cooke returned from a seven-game suspension and had five hits, blocked three shots, caused Blackhawks to dodge checks left and right and stole a puck from Michal Rozsival to set up Fontaine’s first career playoff goal for an early 1-0 lead.
“He gives us a boatload of energy out there, and he gets the guys going no matter what he does,” teammate Charlie Coyle said.
Cooke said he felt he had good jump early, and frankly, he said, “I should have fresh legs.”
The Wild fed off it and played a high-octane first period until the final minute, when Sharp flew by Koivu, who was covering for pinching Clayton Stoner, to tie the score with a shot from a bad angle.
Crawford gave up a softy of his own when Pominville scored from behind the net. Michal Handzus tied the score less than three minutes later, but 44 seconds after that, Niederreiter took Coyle’s touch pass at the Chicago blue line and ripped the eventual winner by Crawford.
As good as the Wild was with the puck, it did another outstanding job bottling up the Blackhawks.
“You try to put pressure on them in each and every zone and get that energy going, and we did well on that,” said Koivu, whose line has been assigned to shut down Toews.
Added Zach Parise: “We’re always making them come through five guys. That gets them frustrated. We’re working hard. We’re making it tough.”
Now the Wild must figure out a way to do it at the United Center.
“We play comfortable here. We play confident,” said Coyle. “That’s what we’ve got to bring on the road. We have to bring that confidence with us.”