Chicago – The Blackhawks seem to be channeling the spirits of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in United Center. When they pick up a turnover, they score, surely as Jordan in his prime on a fast-break alley-oop, back when this building was new.
Against the Wild, Patrick Kane is doing everything but wagging his tongue and hanging on the rim.
Sunday night, the Blackhawks turned three Wild turnovers into three goals, adding an empty-netter for a 4-1 victory and a two-games-to-none series lead.
“It’s not that we made more mistakes,” said Wild defenseman Ryan Suter. “It’s that when we did make one, they capitalized.”
Shutting down the Blackhawks’ stars, or playing an error-free game, is probably unlikely, so the Wild will have to become more proficient in the offensive end. That means they’re going to need more help from The Lost Boys: Thomas Vanek, Chris Stewart, Jason Pominville and Mikko Koivu.
Vanek is a defensive liability who doesn’t always skate hard. His failure to get the puck deep into the offensive zone at the end of the second period led to a typically brilliant goal by Kane following a long breakout pass.
Vanek showed up offensively in Game 1 but did nothing in Game 2.
Stewart has given the Wild little during these playoffs, other than one deft primary assist against the Blues. He has played soft along the boards, belying his bulk and his role. To his credit, he returned to the game after leaving with an apparent injury when Johnny Oduya tackled him into the boards, but he has been ineffective.
Pominville missed an open net on a rolling puck in Game 1. He, like Vanek, needs to score to have value, and he has scored 20 goals in 90 games this season, including playoffs. And a handful of his goals this season have bounced in off body parts. Sunday night, he was invisible.
Koivu has excelled at faceoffs and remains effective defensively, but if not for an intended pass that banked into the goal against St. Louis, he would have one goal in his past 26 playoff games.
The Blackhawks play fast-break hockey, picking up turnovers and rebounds and racing down the ice, freeing up their best shooters and leaving defenders scrambling.
“They have killer instinct,” Suter said. “We were trying to run and gun a little too much and it cost us.”
Jonathan Toews, Kane and Patrick Sharp all scored on breakouts, with Kane and Sharp sharpshooting pucks cleanly past Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk.
The Wild may have outplayed the Blackhawks for stretches of this series, but that doesn’t earn points. Hitting net does, and Kane may have a higher shooting percentage than a lot of Timberwolves.
“Mistakes will happen,” Koivu said. “We need to be better. We need to play our game.”
Wild coach Mike Yeo claimed he didn’t recognize the team in green on Sunday night. “We didn’t make mistakes,” he said. “I don’t know what team played that game, but it wasn’t us tonight.”
What’s problematic for the Wild is that Chicago played exactly like the champion it has been.
What is Yeo to do?
General Manager Chuck Fletcher gave him plenty of depth with late-season trades. Yeo could replace Stewart with Jordan Schroeder, or Sean Bergenheim, in an attempt to improve the Wild’s speed and scoring.
Yeo lamented his inability to get his team in the right mind-set for Game 2. In reality, he’s dependent on a few key players who haven’t performed.
He could beat the underachieving Blues without a full complement of scorers. He won’t beat the Blackhawks unless Pominville and Koivu perform like the core players they are, or if Stewart and Vanek can’t provide the toughness and skill required to at least challenge a highly skilled team.
I asked Yeo if he would consider lineup changes.
“We’ll consider everything,” he said. “But again, it was not a personnel thing. It was a between-the-ears thing tonight.”
Against the Blackhawks, it’s more often a between-the-pipes thing. That’s where Kane & Co. tend to put the puck every time you make a mistake.