In Games 1 and 2 against the Chicago Blackhawks, the Wild lacked energy, feistiness and also had trouble getting pucks through from the blue line.
That was the rationale coach Mike Yeo used Tuesday when deciding to scratch defenseman Nate Prosser for veteran Keith Ballard in Game 3. Despite having not played since sustaining a groin injury March 17, Ballard dived headfirst into the second round of the playoffs Tuesday night as the Wild won 4-0.
“The game’s picked up a considerable amount since the last time I played,” Ballard said before the game. “I think the biggest thing is not try to do too much, especially early. Whether it’s stuff like short shifts, making easy plays, getting yourself into the game a bit.
“But at the same time, you want to make an impact. You don’t want to come in and just be a passenger and try to just get through the game. It’s a fine line.”
Ballard played 11 minutes, 26 seconds.
The Wild played well down the stretch of the regular season with Jon Blum replacing Ballard, but Yeo said Ballard’s sample size — 45 games vs. Blum 15 — was larger.
The Blackhawks blocked 25 shots in Game 2, so Yeo felt Ballard’s ability to slide along the blue line to evade Blackhawks players fronting shooting lanes would help.
“Plus he brings a competitive edge, which is important against a team that wants to hang on to the puck,” Yeo said. “So you need a physical presence along with that skating ability to help you separate and alleviate some of that defensive zone time that you’re faced with.”
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly were at the X to take in the Wild’s first second-round home game in 11 years.
Bettman said the divisional rivalries in the first two rounds of the playoffs are “what we envisioned,” especially in terms of engagement from the fans.
“Buildings are more than 100 percent full, our TV ratings nationally are up, our digital platforms and social media is up,” he said.
He pointed out that of the second-round rivalries — Wild vs. Hawks, Ducks vs. Kings, Bruins vs. Canadiens and Rangers vs. Penguins, no team is traveling more than 400 miles.
The Wild probably is getting an outdoor game at Target Field next winter, likely against Dallas, and Bettman didn’t comment on that, but said, “We know of the interest. You know I was here looking at venues. I have nothing to announce, but we’re very focused.”
Left winger Matt Moulson, acquired at the trade deadline to bring goal scoring, was replaced on the Mikko Koivu-Charlie Coyle line Tuesday by Nino Niederreiter. Niederreiter called it a “big man’s line. We’re all pretty tall and pretty strong, and we can protect the puck down low.”
Moulson, who skated with Erik Haula and Justin Fontaine, entered the game with one playoff goal and two consecutive games of subpar play.
“The speed of Haula in the middle of the ice, I think should help those two guys,” Yeo said. “Hopefully just even mentally for [Moulson] to have the opportunity to just relax and play the game, just concentrate on going out yourself and the things you need to do.”
Koivu’s line had dominating moments, but did not score. Haula got the game’s first goal on a nice feed from Fontaine.
Goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body) skated with extras Carson McMillan, Jake Dowell and Steve Kampfer before the Wild’s morning skate Tuesday. It was the first time he took the ice since getting hurt last Wednesday in Denver.
Yeo called it “a step, but he’s not ready to join our group for practice, yet.”