One week ago, the Wild got past the St. Louis Blues and was considered a fast, well-balanced, defensively structured team with a rock-solid goalie prepping to do something special.
A week later, the Wild is trying to avoid being swept by the team that has become its white whale, the Chicago Blackhawks.
In danger of being eliminated by the same team for a third consecutive season, the Wild faces questions again about why go-to players have been incapable of scoring against the Blackhawks, while the Blackhawks’ go-to players rise to the occasion against the Wild.
Chicago’s Patrick Kane has scored four goals this series — the same amount of goals the Wild has this series. Four more than Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville, Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter. And four more than Thomas Vanek, Ryan Suter and now-injured Chris Stewart have all postseason.
“You don’t have to answer those questions when you win hockey games,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said Wednesday. “So let’s make sure that [Thursday] we don’t have to answer those questions.”
That’s the funny thing about the playoffs.
Win a series, everything is rosy even if the same guys aren’t scoring. Last round, Koivu and Suter did all the little things to shut down the Blues’ top players. Vanek created plays for Coyle and was simply victimized by bad puck luck.
On the verge of losing a playoff series, the whole team concept goes out the window.
Stats don’t lie
Individually, players are dissected because everything is so magnified. And the numbers are indicting.
In the past 29 playoff games, Koivu has two goals and nine assists and is minus-16. In 24 playoff games with the Wild, Pominville has four goals and 10 assists. In 27 playoff games with the Wild, Suter has one goal, eight assists and is minus-17. In the past 16 playoff games, Vanek has no goals, six assists and is minus-11.
Against Chicago, in 14 playoff games, Koivu has no goals, two assists and is minus-12; Suter has no goals, four assists and is minus-13; and Zach Parise has three goals, four assists but is minus-11. In 11 games against Chicago, Pominville has a goal and three assists.
Against the Wild in 14 games, Kane has seven goals and 13 points; Marian Hossa 14 assists, 17 points and is plus-11; and Patrick Sharp has seven goals, 15 points and is plus-9. Top defenseman Duncan Keith has nine points and is plus-10.
There are those inside the Wild who believe its top players are pressing, especially seeing how Chicago’s high-end players are stepping up.
Yeo, as is his custom, wouldn’t single out anyone.
“We need everybody,” Yeo said. “I don’t care — it’d be nice if the top six all score a goal [Thursday]. If they don’t score and we get a goal from our defensemen or a goal from a fourth liner — whatever it is we just need to win. That’s the bottom line.”
Yeo talked about how well the Blackhawks are playing defensively. After Kane scored in the first period during Tuesday’s 1-0 Game 3 victory, the Blackhawks got back in a shell.
The Wild had the puck possession advantage in the second and third periods, attempting 65 shots to the Blackhawks’ 41. Goalie Corey Crawford was strong and protected well; the Hawks blocked 19 shots.
“When a team is playing like that, there’s no easy way to go and score a goal,” Yeo said. “The harder you try, quite often the more frustrating it is and the less opportunity you have.”
The Wild badly wanted to prove this was the year it could knock off the mighty Blackhawks.
“The past couple years we came into this series maybe a little more intimidated facing the Stanley Cup champs,” center Kyle Brodziak said. “We felt that this year was going to be different, the way we were playing and the confidence level we had.”
The Wild can’t get over the hump. It can’t score the big goal (Pominville’s open-net chance in Game 1, Mikael Granlund’s breakaway in Game 3), and Chicago can.
The Blackhawks, who have outscored the Wild 10-3 in the first period, have scored first each game. Because of how well they defend, it was easy to forget Tuesday the deficit was only one goal. It felt like climbing a mountain.
Wild veteran Matt Cooke said Wednesday that when the Wild didn’t score early Tuesday, “we panicked,” and that led to chances that led to turnovers and more frustration.
“It’s not that we need to change our system, it’s not that we need to go out and run around like there’s not a puck on the ice,” Cooke said. “We need to go out and play the way that we can — tight, fast, physical game for 60 minutes.”
Cooke repeated what teammates said after Tuesday’s game. The Wild can’t look at this in the whole — an overwhelming 3-0 series deficit, one that has only been overcome only four times in NHL history and five times in North American pro sports history.
“The picture’s [Thursday]. It’s not any larger than that,” Cooke said.
“We have to win one hockey game,” Yeo said.
However, if the season ends Thursday, Yeo knows the Wild will have to ascertain why it can’t get by the Blackhawks. After all, the Kanes and Jonathan Toewses are going nowhere.
“I hate the word, I’ve never been swept, and I don’t think our players have,” Yeo said. “That’s pretty motivating in itself.”