I haven’t died yet (obviously), but I’m pretty sure I felt something close to that when Niklas Backstrom suffered his “lower-body injury” (per Sports Illustrated) during the Minnesota Wild’s warm-ups before facing the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Don’t get me wrong: I like Josh Harding and admire how well he battled multiple sclerosis all year long, but he has played 20 minutes of playoff hockey in his career. Twenty minutes!
Harding wasn’t the reason why the Wild lost Game 1, however. In fact, Minnesota played well in the United Center, taking mighty Chicago to overtime and nearly winning it on a Kyle Brodziak shot that Blackhawks netminder Corey Crawford fought off.
In the end, Viktor Stalberg set up Bryan Bickell with a nice pass, and Harding would have had to make an incredible save to keep the game alive.
Winning Game 2 at the Madhouse on Madison is going to be a trick, but it's a virtual must-win if the Wild are going to pull off this monumental upset. There are a few takeaways from Game 1, though, that if addressed will help Minnesota advance to Round 2.
Minnesota needs to pepper Corey Crawford with shots
Corey Crawford only faced 30 shots three times in April. He faced 30 shots in St. Louis and shut out the Blues, but allowed two goals against the Phoenix Coyotes, a non-playoff team that struggles offensively, and three goals at Vancouver in his two most recent losses. Against Phoenix and Vancouver, he faced 31 and 32 shots, respectively.
Crawford, 28, has really only seen action in the last three years, and Chicago head coach Joel Quenneville opted to use Ray Emery in 21 contests this season. While Crawford may have started off the season well, it’s probably a product of good defensive play (see: Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook) more than anything.
He faced 27 shots in Game 1. If Minnesota could ratchet that up to over 30, it's got a good chance of building an insurmountable lead in Game 2.
The top scorers need to get on the board
Cal Clutterbuck scored Minnesota’s lone goal in Game 1. It’s always nice to see: Clutterbuck is one of the edgiest, hardest-working players on the team and had a nice shot over the shoulder of Crawford.
The problem is that the Wild could not capitalize on their secondary scoring. Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Co. played hard, and Parise really shouldn’t have gotten that interference call, but in the end they have to execute in playoff time.
A goal from a player like Clutterbuck isn’t really a “bonus” like a shorthanded goal would be, but it should be supplemented with scoring from the team’s most talented scorers. Granted, Dany Heatley and Jason Pominville are out, but this would be a great opportunity for either a younger player like Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker or Mikael Granlund or perhaps a guy like Pierre-Marc Bouchard to chip in and score the game winner.
The Wild must score on the power play
Minnesota is going to get beat five-on-five in this series. With Heatley and Pominville out, Chicago clearly has the deeper team (in fact, it may be the deepest team in the league) and will beat the Wild head-to-head. It’s not just the big names—Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa—who can find the back of the net: Brandon Saad, Viktor Stalberg, Bryan Bickell and even Andrew Shaw are all capable of generating offense.
In the second period, the Wild got two power plays, but came up empty and had their chance on a Johnny Oduya high-sticking call negated by Tom Gilbert’s holding-the-stick call.
The Wild have to be more productive on special teams if they are going to win this series.
I leave this game believing the Wild can pull off the miracle. Yes, I’m probably overly optimistic, but Minnesota played Chicago tough for three periods and change. This is a tough game—the United Center is one of the craziest buildings in the league—and nobody thought the injured Wild had a chance against a healthy Blackhawks club…but they held their own.
By making Crawford fend off shots, getting scoring from the top lines and producing on the power plays, the Wild can pull off this upset.
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