CHICAGO – In the past few days, predictions sailed in from experts calling for the Chicago Blackhawks to make mincemeat of the Wild.
About the only way the Wild would have a prayer upsetting the President’s Trophy winners would be if Niklas Backstrom did a handstand in the middle of the crease the entire series.
So just imagine the stomachs that turned inside the Wild coach’s office Tuesday night when before the Western Conference quarterfinals even started, Backstrom skated gingerly off the ice because of an injury.
“It was a bit of a curveball to say the least,” coach Mike Yeo said.
Josh Harding, who hadn’t made an NHL start in three months, was thrust into emergency action and did everything the Wild could have expected under the circumstances before the team suffered a 2-1 overtime loss at the United Center.
Bryan Bickell scored the winning goal with 3 minutes, 25 seconds left to put an exclamation point on a fight-for-every-inch playoff game. The Blackhawks took a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series with Game 2 in Chicago on Friday.
“The frustrating part is this a game we felt we could just as easily won, but we can’t dwell on that,” Zach Parise said.
The Wild had quality chances, including Jason Zucker hitting the crossbar early in overtime.
“It doesn’t very often go bar, down, out,” Devin Setoguchi said.
Added Yeo: “It’s a game of inches. I certainly wish that one would have gone in.”
Late in OT, after Torrey Mitchell was knocked off the puck with a hard check in the Wild end by Andrew Shaw, Johnny Oduya chipped a puck off the glass to trigger an odd-man rush. Viktor Stalberg skated down the right wing, and after Jonas Brodin committed to him, he set up Bickell, who deked a slid a puck under Harding’s left pad.
“I don’t usually pull moves like that, backhand five hole,” said Bickell, a 6-4 grinder. “I usually get it and shoot it. I don’t know, I must have blacked out after the hash marks.”
In warm-ups, Backstrom, ridden all season, was injured on a harmless-looking attempt to reach for a rebound. He pushed to his right and sustained a lower-body injury to his left side.
Harding started for the first time since Jan. 30, a game in which he was pulled after giving up two goals on four shots to these very same Blackhawks.
Days later, Harding was sidelined due to complications from multiple sclerosis. He missed the next two months.
With Backstrom gone and Darcy Kuemper with the Houston Aeros in the playoffs, that left the Wild with nobody to back up Harding. You can bet Kuemper is on his way now, although Yeo offered no Backstrom postgame prognosis.
Harding made 35 saves and the Wild did a solid job protecting him. Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon combined for 11 of the Wild’s 21 blocked shots. Ryan Suter played a franchise-record 41 minutes, 8 seconds. Cal Clutterbuck scored a first-period goal before Marian Hossa tied it in the second.
“We didn’t win the game,” Yeo said. “So I don’t want to paint too positive a picture on it here. We did some good things and our guys battled hard and that’s good, but we’ve got to find a way to come back and be a little better next game.”
The main area is trying to generate more offensively. Jonathan Toews’ line with Hossa and Brandon Saad did a solid job smothering the Parise-Mikko Koivu-Charlie Coyle line. They combined for five shots, with Koivu being robbed by Corey Crawford on one of the Wild’s four scoreless power plays.
“They didn’t get much either against us,” Parise said. “There was a lot of neutral-zone plays, there was a lot of one-and-done plays. They don’t give you a lot, but it is frustrating. We’re trying, we’re working. We feel like a lot of times we’re chasing the puck, but we’ll have to find ways to break through it.”