It’s come down to the wire for the Minnesota Wild. Down 3-1 in the Western Conference quarterfinals to the mighty Chicago Blackhawks, the Wild have to win three straight in order to advance to the next round.
Minnesota nearly stole a game in the Madhouse on Madison, losing 2-1 in overtime and got another victory in the extra frame in Game 3 at home. Games 2 and 4 were blowouts, however, as the team lost 5-2 and 3-0, respectively.
The Wild have had their fair share of trials and tribulations: Dany Heatley is out for the season, Jason Pominville was in a suit for the first two games and now the team has seen two goaltenders—Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding—fall to unexpected injuries.
There have also been self-inflicted wounds as well. The “power” play is currently 0-for-15, the team came out really physical in Game 3 but shied off in Game 4 and Darcy Kuemper gave up an awfully soft goal immediately upon being put into Game 4.
The following are three things the team must address in order to pull off an upset in this series.
The Power Play Needs to be Revamped
This is something that ultimately will have to be addressed in the offseason because a team that has established stars like Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Pominville and young up-and-comers like Jason Zucker and Charlie Coyle should be a lot more productive with an opponent in the sin bin.
All year long, the power play has been trouble. Minnesota ranked No. 16 in the league with a 17.9 percent conversion rate during the regular season. Instead of carrying the puck into the offensive zone, they frequently dumped and chased without establishing the forecheck.
By relinquishing control of the puck against a team like Chicago, the Wild allowed superstar defensemen like Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook to clear the puck before Minnesota could get a shot on net.
Every deficiency on the power play cannot be addressed right now, but Mike Yeo and his staff need to emphasize puck control when the team is a man up in order to create offense and capitalize on Chicago’s mistakes.
Minnesota Must be More Physical
Yeo went Emperor Palpatine on his team before Game 3, telling them to embrace the hate and unleash their anger on the Blackhawks. Minnesota responded, recording 34 hits and ultimately winning the game on a Zucker goal in overtime.
As a result of the turnovers and increased space and time for their forwards, the Wild were able to pump a fusillade of over 30 shots at Corey Crawford and found the twine three times in front of an ecstatic home crowd.
A soft goal allowed by Kuemper in Game 4, who entered the game in the second period to replace an injured Harding, appeared to take the wind out of Minnesota’s sails. The team only recorded 20 hits all game and gave Chicago’s superstars ample scoring opportunities and simultaneously took the home crowd out of the game.
The Wild will get eaten alive by the hostile crowd on West Madison if they allow the Blackhawks to score early in that game. They must set the tempo by playing a physical game, creating turnovers and capitalizing on scoring opportunities.
Twenty hits are not enough for a team that has always prided itself on defense.
Goaltending Is a Problem
Will the real Wild goaltender please stand up?
Niklas Backstrom? Nope. He got injured warming up in Game 1.
Josh Harding? Nope. He got injured sometime during the first period of Game 3.
Darcy Kuemper? Ahh…he gave up a goal shortly after replacing Harding.
As Eminem once proclaimed: “We’re gonna have a problem here.”
Part of this is a result of the Wild’s poor finish to the season. If they were not scrambling for a playoff spot—causing Chuck Fletcher to go all “Brad Pitt in Moneyball” and sit in the stands for hours before the team’s final regular-season game against the Colorado Avalanche—maybe they would not have had to play Backstrom as much and maybe he would not have gotten hurt.
That’s all speculation, though. For all we know, Backstrom had a freak injury. Harding’s came during the course of play, and that leaves us with Kuemper, 23, a sixth-round pick that spent part of this season in net for the Orlando Solar Bears of the ECHL.
Well, if the Wild are going to win, he needs to shine…no pun intended.
At the beginning of the playoffs, nobody thought Minnesota could beat Chicago in a best-of-seven series. Those prognosticators are looking awfully smart right now.
If the Wild are going to prove them wrong, and playoff miracles do happen, they must be more productive on the power play, finish their checks and Kuemper needs to play like he’s 32 not 23.
At this point, upsetting the Presidents' Trophy-winning Blackhawks is going to be a trick. It is now, with its back against the wall, we get to see what this team is made of.