The Wild has been branded a trapping team since the days of Jacques Lemaire, so any time a game borders on the boring side, critics usually assign fault to the Wild.
The neutral zone in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals was so congested, Wild and Chicago Blackhawks players looked as if they were skating through a labyrinth.
In the days since, the national media and hockey fans across the globe have analyzed the game like, “Same old Wild.” That has rubbed some inside the Wild the wrong way, especially because early in Tuesday’s game, it was clear the Blackhawks, perhaps after seeing the storm the Colorado Avalanche had to weather in Games 3 and 4 last round, tried to silence the Wild’s record crowd of 19,416 by sitting back in an attempt to limit the Wild’s ability to get through center ice and get on overpowering forechecks.
Slowly but surely the game turned into a hard-to-watch, neutral-zone chess match. Neither team could get through cleanly.
“Of course we’re going to be blamed for that. I mean, it’s the high-flying Hawks,” Zach Parise said, sarcastically.
The Wild finally broke through during a four-goal third period and eventual shutout to cut its series deficit to two games to one. Friday night, the Wild will try to even the series and make it a best-of-three heading into Sunday’s Game 5 in Chicago.
Veteran Matt Cooke will return from a seven-game suspension in his normal checking-line left wing role and replace Matt Moulson. Coach Mike Yeo revealed Thursday that Moulson, the veteran goal scorer who has struggled all postseason with one goal and two assists, has been battling through a lower-body injury and won’t play.
Last round, the Wild rallied from a 2-0 deficit to even its series with Colorado and eventually win in seven games. Last year against Chicago, the Wild won Game 3, fell down 3-1 after losing Game 4 and lost the first-round series in five games.
Teams leading 3-1 in a best-of-seven series are 246-26 all-time, although the Wild twice rallied from 3-1 deficits in 2003.
“We know that [the Blackhawks] recognize the importance of the game, as do we,” Yeo said. “We know that there is another level to our game that we can get to. We’re going to come out with a real purpose in how we play. We have to stay strong defensively, but I know that there is another level that we can get to with the puck and how we execute, in particular from coming out of our D-zone and through the neutral zone.”
That neutral zone was excruciating to get through for both teams Tuesday. Parise said the Blackhawks played a “good, stereotypical road game” Tuesday where they tried to clog up the neutral zone and take the crowd out of it.
“Show me a team in the NHL that doesn’t play a trap and I’ll call you a liar because every single team does it,” said Parise, the NHL’s second-leading playoff scorer with 13 points. “Whoever does it the best, then they get called a defensive team. I don’t agree with that. Every single team plays a trap.
“Last game, the ice was bouncy. There wasn’t a lot of flat plays through the neutral zone, and I think both sides were somewhat getting frustrated because you couldn’t get it through clean. So then all of sudden you just try to stretch pass and chip it in and skate. They did the same thing to us that we did to them. It wasn’t like we were playing an 0-5 [alignment in the neutral zone] all game.”
In Thursday’s practice, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville scrambled all four of his lines as the Blackhawks search for more offense. The top three lines? Jonathan Toews centered Bryan Bickell and Ben Smith, Marcus Kruger centered Brandon Saad and Patrick Kane, and Michal Handzus centered Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa.
The Blackhawks were shut out twice during last year’s Cup run. In the next games, they scored four goals vs. Detroit and six goals vs. Boston.
The Wild, for the most part, is expecting the Blackhawks to be much more aggressive in Game 4. As defenseman Ryan Suter said, the Blackhawks are at their best when “they’re going at you, trying to attack, trying to make plays every single time.”
Said Yeo: “I expect them to come out and try and pressure more and skate and get their speed as more of a factor. Likewise, we want to, too.”
Frankly, though, Parise wouldn’t be shocked if the Blackhawks again try to “clog up” the neutral zone.
“When you run into a team that plays well at home, that has a crowd like we do, you don’t want to give up odd-man rushes, you want to limit the amount that their crowd is able to get into the game,” Parise said. “I don’t foresee either team trying to go all-out offense because there’s too much at stake.
“Let’s put it this way: The minute they did last game, the minute we finally got a 3-on-2 and 2-on-1 and we scored. They don’t want to give that up again, and neither do we.”