ST. PAUL, Minn. -- In some ways, this second-round series between the Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild is playing out just the way most observers felt it would. The defending Cup champs from Chicago are just a step, maybe a step and a half, quicker than the dogged Wild.
The Blackhawks, after dropping the first two games of the opening round against the St. Louis Blues, have won six straight and on Sunday waxed the Wild 4-1 to take a 2-0 series lead, having outscored Minnesota 9-3 in the two games played in Chicago.
Does this mean you can start saving your shekels to buy Western Conference finals paraphernalia with the Blackhawks logo attached? Well, let's not be so hasty.
Here's a look at five ways the Wild can get back in this series.
Being masters of the obvious, we're going to go out on a limb and suggest A) the Wild need to score more goals, and B) the best way to accomplish that is to have their talented goal scorers actually, you know, put the puck in the net. So far that hasn't happened with nearly enough regularity, especially since the Wild knocked off the Colorado Avalanche in a seventh game in the first round.
Specifically, what is up with Jason Pominville, who had 30 goals during the regular season but just one in the postseason? While Pominville has at least chipped in five assists, perhaps the most disturbing trend has been the near invisibility of Matt Moulson, the trade deadline acquisition from the Buffalo Sabres who has one goal and one assist in nine postseason games. One wonders how much this dry stretch is going to cost Moulson on the free-agent market this summer. One thing is for certain: It's hard to imagine the Wild making any kind of push to keep him unless things pick up in a hurry.
Coach Mike Yeo acknowledged Monday that during the playoffs it's often harder for players to pull themselves out of scoring funks. It's like quicksand, "the more you struggle, the deeper you get," he said. "That's why it's really important to make sure that you're focused on the game, make sure that you're focused on your play. What are the things that you're doing when you're successful? What are the things that you are doing to create scoring chances, to give yourself the best chance to capitalize on an opportunity like that? And I think that's what's critical, not only for individuals as far as wanting to score a goal, but for our team as far as wanting to win a game too. We have to stay focused on the little things. We have to stay focused on our process and trust that result will be there at the end."
Zach Parise was dominant in the first round and leads the team with 11 postseason points, but no other Wild player has more than six. That will have to change in a hurry.
Six times this spring, the Wild have gone 0-for-the power play. That includes the past three games, when they went 0-for-7.
They earned just one power-play opportunity in Sunday's loss, and there's the rub. To get better on the power play, you have to get those chances. And to draw penalties, the Wild have to be generating more speed.
Speed kills. Teams almost always resort to committing fouls in an effort to slow down opposing players, whether they are puck carriers or players going to the net or cutting through the neutral zone. More speed should in theory generate more power-play opportunities, and that is an avenue the Wild might be able to exploit to gain an edge.
The fact that the Blackhawks are in a groove while killing penalties isn't helping matters; they have allowed just two power-play goals since the playoffs began and have been perfect in four straight games. That will have to change if the Wild are going to make a dent in this series.
"We've got to draw more power plays, for sure," Yeo said. "Usually you do that when you're moving your feet, when you're playing with speed. It can be off the rush, but it can also be in the offensive zone, where we're moving our feet, we're forcing somebody to hook, we're forcing somebody to hold.
"Again, I don't think that we had enough of that. I don't think we saw a lot of guys carrying pucks [Sunday] night, skating, taking open ice. For whatever reason, we seemed to have our feet planted. Hopefully the energy part of it -- that's all it is. Hopefully, the confidence of coming back home and just sort of the mentality of 'Let's go make the play,' that'll be what we're looking for."
We often talk about home-ice advantage, even though the reality is that often there is little to no advantage of playing at home. Four of the eight first-round series ended with the visiting team (Los Angeles, Minnesota, Anaheim and Pittsburgh) winning the deciding game.
Having said that, home ice really is an advantage for the Wild. They are undefeated in three games at home (and a pedestrian 1-5 on the road) in these playoffs, and Yeo has been able to use the home crowd and last change to get the matchups that he feels favor his squad. The Wild outscored the Avalanche 8-3 in their three home victories in the first round. That kind of defensive posture will have to be replicated against a Chicago team that features eight players with at least two playoff goals and three players -- Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Bryan Bickell -- with at least four.
"I think we feel comfortable here. We're excited," said forward Dany Heatley, who has had something of a renaissance in the playoffs with one goal and five assists. "This is a real loud building in the playoffs. I know the fans, the town's excited to watch [Tuesday]. And we've played well here all year. It's important to be good in your rink, and we have, and we've got to continue to do that this playoffs."
Added Yeo: "It's going to be really loud, and we feed off of that."
There is a fine line between respecting a team and being in awe of it, and the Wild are going to have to stay on the right side of that line.
There is no denying the talent and experience that the Blackhawks bring to the table. They are in a mighty groove, and as Yeo pointed out, they don't sit back and try to protect leads; they continue to go after teams, which is what happened in the first two games as they managed to break open two close contests with late goals.
"I'll give those guys a ton of credit," Yeo said. "You look at what they've done the last four years. Night in and night out, this is a team that can hurt you in the way they play offensively. They can hurt you in how they can capitalize on their opportunities.
"But this is a team that's not easy to play against. This is a team that checks very well. It's a team that has good depth. They can put out different guys against different lines and different pairings against different lines, and they're very consistent in their checking game. Especially, I think, a large part of that is the way they skate. They play a fast game in how they play without the puck, in the same way that they play a fast game with the puck. So you've got to be ready to make quick plays. You've got to be ready to make fast decisions."
The fact the Blackhawks have beaten the Wild in six of the past seven postseason games the past two years might also be in the back of some of the Minnesota players' minds. If that's the case, they need to start thinking about different things. Heatley, for one, dismissed the stats as irrelevant.
"First of all, I think this year and last year are completely different," he said. "I think we have a different group in here. You guys can run whatever numbers you want, but I think we believe we can beat this team and it starts [Tuesday]."
Added Clayton Stoner: "As much as we respect them, I don't think that we think they're a better team."
If we were Yeo, and we rarely claim to be, we would consider going with John Curry, just to shake things up in net.
That's probably not going to happen, and with rookie Darcy Kuemper still out of the lineup with an injury, it looks like the Wild will sink or swim with Ilya Bryzgalov, who has compiled a 1-4 record with an .830 save percentage in the postseason. In Sunday's game, the Blackhawks were targeting Bryzgalov high, and he has been slow to react high glove side.
The bottom line is that Bryzgalov needs to be better, to steal a game somewhere, somehow, if the Wild are going to get back in this series. Do we think that's going to happen? Hey, it's the playoffs; anything can happen.