Whatever happens the rest of this series, the Wild has arrived at an unexpected place. The local hockey franchise with the weird name and the ugly sweaters is standing toe-to-toe with the champs.
The Wild’s ability to whip the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday in Game 3 wasn’t all that surprising. The Blackhawks have hardly been flawless on the road in the playoffs the past few years, and the Wild has proved this season that Xcel Energy Center can provide a tangible home-ice advantage. The Wild was desperate to stay alive, and the Blackhawks had to feel secure with a 2-1 series lead over an apparently exhausted team.
Friday would, theoretically, provide a sterner test. The Blackhawks would want to win Game 4 and position themselves to wrap up the series at home on Sunday. After two days of rest, the Wild figured to see the champs’ best.
The Blackhawks provided the expected level of effort, and that did not matter. The Wild outplayed them by a wide margin, winning 4-2 and outshooting Chicago 31-20.
The Wild won Game 3 with a third-period burst. The Wild won Game 4 by dominating throughout.
The Wild has accomplished in Round 2 of the Stanley Cup playoffs what it accomplished in Round 1: faced a team demonstrably better in the standings and statistically, and won two home games to turn the series into a free-for-all.
There is no better testament to the team’s improved roster depth and the coaching of Mike Yeo than the Wild looking at home in a close series with a model franchise.
For the second straight series, the Wild has dominated the puck in its home games, using its depth at forward to forecheck and pressure a talented opponent into mistakes. Since the third period of Game 3, the Wild has made the Blackhawks look sloppy and frazzled.
Who could have imagined this, back when the Wild was mired in one of its can’t-score, can’t-find-a-goalie slumps: the home crowd taunting the Blackhawks’ Cup-winning goalie for being unable to stop the likes of Nino Niederreiter and Jared Spurgeon.
And who could have imagined this, back when Wild forward Matt Cooke took out the knee of Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie: Cooke being the Wild’s best player in the first period after returning from a well-deserved seven-game suspension.
If there are lessons to be learned, the Wild evidently learned the most important: Shoot the puck. And if there is a second rule of playoff hockey, it is: Shoot it again.
Justin Fontaine scored the first goal, thanks to a pass and then a screen by Cooke, by clanking a short-side shot off Crawford. Bad goal.
Patrick Sharp beat Wild goalie Ilya Bryzgalov between the skates. Bad goal.
Jason Pominville gave the Wild the lead again by banking a shot from behind the net off Crawford’s right skate. It was 2-1, Wild. Bad goal.
The Blackhawks tied it on Michal Handzus’s tip-in of a Brent Seabrook shot. It was 2-2. That falls into the category, in hockey parlance, of “greasy goal.’’
The Wild regained the lead late in the second period when Niederreiter unleashed his no-longer-secret rocket shot past Crawford, for his latest, biggest goal of his career.
The first three goals of the game should not have found the net but did. It was Bryzgalov, the journeyman, who settled down and made the key saves.
Last year, the Wild needed its best players to carry it in a series against the Blackhawks. When Zach Parise and Koivu couldn’t score, Chicago coasted to a five-game decision.
This year, the Wild’s increased depth and speed at forward is pressuring Chicago into uncharacteristic mistakes and producing important goals. No matter what happens the rest of the way, that’s a sign that all of those trades and free-agent signings were more than wild-eyed desperation.
That’s a sign that the Wild could be playing these kinds of games, in these kinds of series, for years to come.
Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN. His Twitter name is