It won't be easy for Wild, Hawks
Wild score two picture-perfect goals to end Hawks' six-game win streak
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- If this playoff hockey game was a circus act, it would be The Dog-Faced Boy.
If it was a color, it would be a lighter shade of beige.
A song? Wreck On The Highway.
And in the Minnesota Wild locker room?
Pure joy. Well, maybe joy with more than a pinch of relief.
After meandering their way through more than two periods of some of the most lackluster hockey produced by any two teams anywhere this spring, the Wild struck for two picture-perfect goals in a span of 2 minutes, 37 seconds early in the third period to break open a scoreless game and go on to a 4-0 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks.
"We know it's going to be a really [tight-]checking game," offered Mikael Granlund, who scored the Wild's second goal and added an empty-netter to round out the scoring. "You don't have a lot of room there, you don't have a lot of time to skate with the puck. Both teams are in their face all the time. Sometimes the games are like that and you need to find a way to get a win. Tonight we were able to do that."
The victory, regardless of its pedigree, was significant on a number of fronts.
First, it allowed the Wild to narrow the Blackhawks' lead in this Western Conference semifinals series to 2-1. It was, not to overstate the obvious, a victory the Wild absolutely had to have.
It also marked the team's fourth straight home victory in this playoff season, which is critical given they are 1-5 on the road.
It was also a victory that halted the Chicago Blackhawks' six-game playoff winning streak and dulled -- at least for a couple of days -- the sheen that had reflected so brightly off the defending Stanley Cup champions since they dropped the first two games of the opening round against St. Louis.
Hard to mix in a term like "juggernaut" after this dishwater-dull effort from the Blackhawks.
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"No one said it was going to be easy. They are a tough team. They play hard and they showed us they have some skill," said Chicago netminder Corey Crawford, whose streak of four straight games of allowing two or fewer goals was snapped.
"They tend to play that game once in a while, where they like to shut things down and put you to sleep. We were fine in here going into the third period. Things just got away from us there."
In outscoring the Wild 9-3 in the first two games of the series, there was a certain sameness to last year's first-round series between these two teams, a feeling that once again the Blackhawks were simply too good for the Wild, a class above.
A year ago, the Wild won Game 3 in overtime and then went meekly in the next two games.
This year there seems to be better resolve among this group.
Certainly, if Game 3 s any indication, there is more patience.
Tuesday night, the Wild could find no offensive rhythm, managing just five shots on Crawford in each of the first two periods.
To the Wild's credit, they were much stronger defensively and allowed the Blackhawks' vaunted offense no room to maneuver to exercise their significant skill advantage, limiting Chicago to just 15 shots through the first two frames.
And when they did get the odd quality scoring chance, Ilya Bryzgalov -- he of the 3.89 goals-against average and .830 save percentage coming into Game 3 -- was solid. He stood firm with less than six minutes to go when Jonathan Toews picked off a pass in close and earlier kicked out a hard Duncan Keith shot to maintain the two-goal advantage in earning his first postseason shutout since 2006, when he was with the Anaheim Ducks.
"Thanks for reminding me. It was a while," Bryzgalov quipped after.
And while veterans such as Mikko Koivu, Matt Moulson and Jason Pominville continue to struggle to produce goals (the three have combined for three through in the team's first 10 games), the Wild were carried forward on this night by two promising young Finns.
First it was Erik Haula redirecting a delightful floating pass from Justin Fontaine into the Blackhawks' net just 1:41 into the third period. Then just 2:37 later, Granlund cut to the center and lifted a backhand into the Chicago goal to make it 2-0.
The record crowd of 19,4416 fans at Xcel Energy Center and Minnesota head coach Mike Yeo were pleased that both goals came off the rush after so little creativity had been shown all game. The goal also gave the Wild their first lead in the series.
The Wild added a third goal with 2:35 in the game on the power play, another sore spot for them in this series and throughout the postseason.
"We don't want to be the team that cracks first. I think we did in Chicago. We gave up a rush chance, they end up capitalizing on it. Tonight was a little bit the opposite. We were able to capitalize on the three-on-two," for the first goal, said Jason Pominville, who earned his sixth and seventh assists this postseason.
"I think it's just trying to be the team that doesn't crack first and force them to come through a lot of guys because they definitely have a lot of talent up front to make you pay."
With an extra off-day between Games 3 and 4, the Chicago Blackhawks returned home to Chicago to ponder their sudden mortality, the end of their winning streak and the fact they could must only 19 shots. They had just four in the third period.
"We started playing the way we could when we went down two goals to none," said captain Jonathan Toews. "Still a little frustrating trying to understand why that is. I guess that's part of their game plan. They want to try and take away our speed, take away our pace of play and keep us under 20 shots. So we've got to just find a way around that. We've got to play with more energy and we'll take the next couple days to think about it and do better Friday."
One imagines the Blackhawks will return to Game 4 Friday night determined to push the Wild more than was the case Tuesday, and if that's the case, the Wild will have to find more answers other than simply winning ugly.
"We know we've got another really big challenge. We're not sitting here patting ourselves on the back. We know that we're still not leading the series," Yeo said. "Our goal is to come back and even it up."
Still, on this night, ugly was a beautiful thing for a Minnesota Wild team desperate for a win of any hue or description.