- Craig Custance
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CHICAGO -- Down a goal, Minnesota Wild forward Dany Heatley was fighting for position in front of Corey Crawford during a second-period Minnesota power play. He fought off two pretty good shoves to the back from Niklas Hjalmarsson, regaining his balance while turning toward Crawford to get in position to score.
He was battling.
Zach Parise sent the puck toward the front of the net, where Heatley took one whack at it. On the rebound, Heatley had another open look, but sent the puck just wide.
An inch or two in the right direction, the game is tied and the Wild can stop chasing for a few minutes.
But it missed.
As have all of the other shots from the Wild's biggest names in this series against the Chicago Blackhawks. The difference so far in the second round between these Central Division rivals is that the Blackhawks haven't missed their opportunities.
The Blackhawks won again against Minnesota, this time 4-1, in another game when the final score looks worse than the play on the ice. That's what happens when you capitalize on nearly every opportunity presented.
"We weren't that far off. Even though, again, I know we can play better," said Wild coach Mike Yeo, whose team finds itself in an identical position as in the first round after dropping two to Colorado. "That game was hanging for us. It's a 1-0 game and we got a couple empty nets. We can't find a way to put it in."
That's now six wins in a row for the Blackhawks. Six consecutive wins since opening the playoffs with two straight losses to the St. Louis Blues. Unlike last year, when the competition from opponents grew as the Blackhawks progressed from round to round, Chicago was challenged early in these playoffs against the Blues. It has snapped them into mid-postseason form immediately and with that have come the wins.
Six in a row, a stretch in which Corey Crawford has allowed a total of only nine goals.
Six in a row, games in which Toews and Kane have combined for eight goals, divided equally.
Six in a row, where Bryan Bickell has re-established himself as Bryan Bickell, dominant postseason power forward.
If the Blues made any lasting impact on this postseason, it's that they jolted the Blackhawks into Stanley Cup contending form earlier than what happened last year. That's dangerous, especially as the other side of the West threatens to beat each other up all series.
"I feel like we learned a lot from last series against St. Louis," Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith said after the Game 2 win. "Being in that pressure situation early on in the playoffs. They're a good team, close games every game, playing triple overtime. Overtimes. It was just tight all the way through. You learn to play in those pressure situations, you get the feeling and the experience of being in there early. That was only beneficial for us."
Also beneficial for the Blackhawks is that they are well aware of how other Western Conference series played out in the first round, not just theirs against the Blues. They saw the Sharks go up 3-0 on the Kings, only to lose in seven. More importantly, they saw the Avalanche win the first two at home against the Wild, only to lose that series in seven.
"We have a lot of respect for Minnesota," Keith said. "We saw what happened with them in the Colorado series. They've got a lot of character in that room. They came back in their other series. We know that. They fought all season long for a playoff spot. We're not taking anything for granted in this room."
The difference in this series compared to Colorado is you felt like the Avalanche stole at least one of those games against the Wild in Denver. In Chicago, the Blackhawks stole nothing. Their skill players just cashed in on their opportunities, the way Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, Matt Moulson, Heatley and Mikko Koivu have not. Cody McCormick scored the only Wild goal on Sunday afternoon, on a sequence set up by Erik Haula. It was also Haula who assisted Kyle Brodziak's goal in game one.
If the Wild are going to get back in this series, somebody besides Haula needs to be making plays that lead to goals.
"We need somebody different every night," Yeo said. "Listen, we're playing a good team."
A good team that suddenly has gone over two weeks without a loss.
8dScott Burnside and Craig Custance