It’s been a rough stretch for Minnesota Wild goaltenders. Before Game 1 in Chicago, starter Niklas Backstrom suffered a lower body injury that led coach Mike Yeo to call on backup Josh Harding, who had spent two months on injured reserve during the regular season while adjusting to medication for multiple sclerosis. Harding had only played five games, posting modest numbers (1-1-0, .863, 3.24), but he performed heroically that night, stopping 35-of-37 shots in a 2-1 loss to the Blackhawks. The Wild could have won that one if winger Jason Zucker’s shot hadn’t hit the crossbar in overtime.
On Sunday, fortune finally smiled on Harding (and Zucker), though at first it looked like more bad breaks were in store. Harding, who had been strafed by 47 shots in Minnesota’s 5-2 loss in Game 2, took a puck to the shoulder during warmups and left his crease for a time, but he was able to start and he played well. This time, the outcome was more fortunate as Minnesota got back into the series with a 3-2 win thanks to Zucker’s clutch goal in OT.
Some thoughts and observations on the game:
• The Wild spent most of the first two games trying to counterattack the Blackhawks. That’s fine, but Minnesota didn’t have much of a forecheck and Chicago’s defensemen were having too easy a time bringing the puck out to center ice. That pattern repeated for the first few minutes of Game 3, as the Hawks outshot Minnesota 6-1 and the Wild did not have a sustained possession in Chicago’s end for the first four minutes of the game.
• The Hawks struck first after killing off a power play in the first period, but the Wild gave them some help. Patrick Kane had the puck in the lower right corner of the offensive zone, and as he held it the entire contingent of Wild players shifted to that side of the ice, leaving a gaping hole on the opposite side. Chicago defenseman Johnny Oduya slinked in from the point and took the pass from Kane, beating Harding from near the top of the circle. Unlike many pinches by defensemen, this wasn’t much of a risk because Oduya’s side of the ice was unoccupied by any Wild players.
• The Wild began to take over the pace of the game soon after, forcing the action, playing with purpose and forechecking more than they had in the first two games, when they seemed content to meet the Hawks in the center zone. Minnesota’s goal in the first period came after Cal Clutterbuck and Pierre-Marc Bouchard sped into the Hawks’ zone with Chicago’s Marian Hossa doing a good job of forcing Bouchard to the outside after Bouchard lost the puck. But Bouchard stayed with the play and beat Hossa to a critical spot on the ice before sending a backhand from the low slot over Corey Crawford’s glove for the equalizer.
• Throughout the game, the Wild continued to pound the Hawks, feeding off the encouragement of their home crowd and the urgency of their two games to none deficit. After being outshot 6-1, Minnesota was credited with 18 of the next 21 and went on to outshoot Chicago 40-29 while outhitting the Hawks, 34-13. Clutterbuck had eight hits and Devin Setoguchi seven. The Wild also had nine takeaways while the usually aggressive Hawks managed two.
• Minnesota’s aggressive play, largely absent during the first two games in Chicago, wore down the Hawks and produced a go-ahead goal early in the third period. Right winger Charlie Coyle outworked Hawks defenseman Michal Rozsival behind the Chicago net and fed Zach Parise, who was cruising through the slot. Both Jonathan Toews and Oduya had a shot at Parise, but let him slip through for the conversion. Parise had 15 points in 24 playoff games last spring with the Devils during New Jersey’s run to game six of the Stanley Cup Final, but he was held to no points and a -3 during the first two games in Chicago.
• A subtle hesitation by the Wild contributed to the Hawks’ second goal, a tally that was similar to their first. As Minnesota went on a line change, Brent Seabrook had the puck on the opposite side of the ice. Clutterbuck had been battling Toews and he tried to give Chicago’s captain an extra jab at the bench instead of getting off the ice quickly. That created a late change and opened up the left side of the ice as Chicago attacked. Again it was Kane who noticed the free lane and fed the trailing defenseman, this time Duncan Keith, who cruised in and beat Harding to tie the game, 2-2.
• Minnesota was much better with face-offs on home ice than it had been during the first two games. The Wild had a lost that battle 31-26 in the second game, but improved to 40-32 in Game 3. In particular, captain Mikko Koivu, who was 17-for-39 on the road, went 15-for-20 at home. In contrast, Chicago’s Michal Handzus, who was 7-for-14 in Game 2, was 5-for-16 on Sunday. Yeo did some quiet campaigning for his centermen, reminding officials that they were evicting a greater number of Minnesota players than the more experienced Blackhawks who were able to encroach the dots too much for his liking.
• In overtime, the Wild did some excellent work behind Chicago’s goal to produce the game-winner. Bouchard went into the right corner and won the puck from Chicago’s Nick Leddy, forcing it behind the net. Minnesota’s Matt Cullen then went behind the goal, recovered the puck and kept after it even though Chicago’s Andrew Shaw tripped him to the ice. With one hand on the puck, Cullen slipped it between the tardy checks of Oduya and Viktor Stalberg, sending it through to Zucker, the 21-year-old winger who had scored four career regular-season goals. Zucker put it in the top corner as Crawford went down early and the Wild avoided falling into an 0-3 hole. This series may not be a stroll for the Blackhawks after all.