Before many Wild players head to Jamaica, Mexico and other far-off lands Wednesday for five days of unwinding and re-energizing for the season’s stretch run, first things first.
At Xcel Energy Center on Tuesday night hypothetically could have been a preview of Round 2 if the Wild and Chicago Blackhawks are fortunate enough to advance past the first round. The Wild would like once and for all to get home-ice advantage against the Blackhawks, who ended Minnesota’s season in 2013, 2014 and 2015.
If the Wild can’t shut down Chicago’s Captain Clutch, it won’t matter, however.
Not even two weeks after scoring two goals, including the overtime winner, and an assist in St. Paul, Jonathan Toews became the third player in history to have five points against the Wild during Chicago’s 5-3 victory Tuesday.
The Wild stymied the lines of Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa but, as Zach Parise said, “That’s why they’ve won the Cup three times. It feels like when one’s not going, the other is going.”
Toews sunk his third goal for his fourth career hat trick into an empty net from 155 feet away with 62 seconds left to finish a plus-5 night and lead the Blackhawks to a seventh consecutive road victory and pull the team he captains to within five points of the Wild, which has played one less game.
The Wild had no answer against the Toews line. Nick Schmaltz, the fellow University of North Dakota product, had a goal and two assists, including what coach Joel Quenneville called a “spectacular” no-look, behind-the-back pass to fool rookie Gustav Olofsson less than two minutes after Parise scored a third-period goal to pull the Wild to within one. Richard Panik, the third member of the line, had a goal and assist.
“There’s going to be nights where you’re jammed in your zone,” goalie Devan Dubnyk said. “… But you can’t fall asleep. If you look at all four goals, that was the case.”
The Wild made it a game when Mikael Granlund scored his second power-play goal of the game with 6:51 left, but the Wild paid for a number of defensive lapses earlier and wasted its chance to take over the NHL wins and points lead.
The Marco Scandella-Matt Dumba pair had to be broken up after Chicago scored its second goal five minutes into the second. Dumba, back in the lineup after missing four games because of a knee injury, was minus-4.
He lost a puck battle on Toews’ first goal, turned the puck over to Toews on the second goal, had several other turnovers and got trapped on the ice often for long shifts.
Coach Bruce Boudreau blamed himself for playing Dumba after only one practice.
“He wasn’t sharp in any situations,” Boudreau said.
After an entertaining yet scoreless first period, the Wild was outplayed in the second. Granlund answered Toews’ first goal, but it took 41 seconds for the Dumba-Scandella pair to hand the goal back. Only Dubnyk’s play kept the Wild a shot away from tying it to start the third.
But 31 seconds in, Toews won a faceoff to Schmaltz, who ripped the puck through a double screen. Dubnyk didn’t move a muscle. The Wild had plenty of chances in the third but could never get the equalizer.
“Regardless of how big those two points are and where we’re at and how close we are in the standings, I think we always look at that team, especially with the way they’re playing, as a measuring stick right now,” Toews said. “Our respect level for what they can do is at an all-time high.”
The Wild’s nine-game regular-season point streak against Chicago ended. One loss shouldn’t make fans panic that the Wild can’t beat Chicago in a playoff series, Boudreau said.
“Look back: We deserved to win the game in Chicago,” Boudreau said. “We certainly, I thought, outplayed them in the overtime game that we lost. So they outplayed us [Tuesday]. But what wouldn’t make me think that we couldn’t play with them?
“They’re a great team. But we’re right there.”