Chicago – The puck wasn’t exactly on a tee. That would be against NHL rules.
The puck was rolling, skipping across the ice like a predatory bird on a pond.
It was late in the third period Friday. Mikael Granlund had just sent a deft pass toward a wide-open Jason Pominville to the left of the Blackhawks net, half of which was unpopulated.
Pominville wound up like an angry man hitting driver on a par-5. A slap of tape against vulcanized rubber, the billowing of net, and the Wild would have been tied with the Blackhawks, perhaps headed to overtime in Game 1 of the playoffs at United Center for a second year in a row.
Pominville swung, made only partial contact and sent the puck wide. Chicago held on to win 4-3, and that play became as symbolic as it was pivotal.
“If it’s flat, it’s probably in,” Zach Parise said.
“It was rolling when I got it,” Granlund said. “Maybe I should have settled it down before passing. It happened so fast.”
This isn’t unusual. A puck bounces, a stick breaks, a team laments.
What’s troubling in this case is that for Pominville, a moment of bad luck fits snugly into a trend.
There were dozens of turning points in the Wild’s loss. That’s what makes playoff hockey so captivating. The true turning point might have been the first goal, or the third, or Thomas Vanek hitting a post or Devan Dubnyk whiffing on a long shot at the end of the second period.
There are also Wild players other than Pominville who have struggled offensively. If this team is going to beat a proven winner such as Chicago, it will need better performances from a handful of forwards, including Mikko Koivu in the offensive zone and Chris Stewart along the boards.
Vanek, missing offensively against the Blues, rematerialized in Game 1 against Chicago with two assists, a couple of beautiful passes that went unrewarded and a shot off the post.
Pominville, though, is paid to score goals. He is on the first-unit power play. He plays with the team’s star, Parise, and a shrewd playmaker, Granlund. And he’s not producing. (Pominville declined an interview request Saturday after the Wild’s optional practice.)
Pominville is 32. This season, he scored 18 goals in 82 games. His durability is admirable — since 2006 he is tied for fourth in the NHL in games played. His productivity is declining — 18 goals in 82 games marked his lowest goals-per-game average of his NHL career.
In 13 playoff games last year, he produced two goals and seven assists.
In seven playoff games this season, he has produced two goals and three assists.
The numbers aren’t terrible. When a team loses in the playoffs, though, the missed opportunities seem to matter more than the converted goals.
The gap between the Blackhawks and Wild appears to have narrowed over the past three years. The difference in play is far less conspicuous than the difference in their trophy cases would indicate.
But where the Wild so often has shrugged off missed opportunities when these teams meet in the playoffs, the Blackhawks have spent postgame interviews detailing just how they finished on that key scoring chance.
There is a shorter way to say that: Patrick Kane tends to bury his chances against the Wild.
Does the Blackhawks’ ability to finish place more pressure on the Wild’s forwards?
“You try as hard as you can to not think like that,” Parise said. “We don’t want to be a one-and-done type team. We don’t want to feel we have to score on every opportunity we’ve got. That’s a hard way to play.
“But with their type of team, you can spend a lot of time in their zone, they get one crack and they score.”
The puck rolled. It happens. At some point during this series, though, Parise or Granlund will slide a settled puck toward Pominville. What he does with it could make all the difference.